Quote of the Week

Today we hear from Berkhof on theistic evolution, timely in today’s current theological climate.

Other evolutionists advocate what they call theistic evolution. This postulates the existence of God back of the universe, who works in it, as a rule according to the unalterable laws of nature and by physical forces only, but in some cases by direct miraculous intervention, as, for instance, in the case of the absolute beginning, the beginning of life, and the beginning of rational and moral existence. This has often been called derisively a “stop-gap” theory. It is really a child of embarrassment, which calls God in at periodic intervals to help nature over the chasms that yawn at her feet. It is neither the Biblical doctrine of creation, nor a consistent theory of evolution, for evolution is defined as “a series of gradual progressive changes effected by means of resident forces” (Le Conte, emphasis Berkhof’s). In fact, theistic evolution is a contradiction in terms. It is just as destructive of faith in the Biblical doctrine of creation as naturalistic evolution is (emphasis added); and by calling in the creative activity of God time and again it also nullifies the evolutionary hypothesis (Systematic Theology, pp. 139-140).

Vos on Creation

It is indeed wonderful to have available to us for the first time Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics. Vos is often co-opted (and misinterpreted!) by people who love biblical theology, but hate systematic theology. Unfortunately for them, Vos does not go along with them. It is starting to become better known (now that his Reformed Dogmatics is being published) that Vos taught systematic theology at Calvin Seminary before he went to Princeton to teach biblical theology. Does his Reformed Dogmatics give any ground to those who despise systematic theology in our day? Not an inch.

Vos would also be extremely uncomfortable to those (often the same people!) who want to relegate Genesis 1-2 to the realm of myth. The idea that these chapters are myth is not a new idea. It was around in Vos’s time. Here is what Vos says about the genre of Genesis 1-2:

How many kinds of interpretation are there of Genesis 1 and 2? Mainly three: the allegorical, the mythical and the historical. The first two views, however, are untenable because within the narrative of Scripture the creation narrative is interwoven like a link in the chain of God’s saving acts. God does not make a chain of solid gold, in which the first link is a floral wreath. If the creation history is an allegory, then the narrative concerning the fall and everything further that follows can also be allegory. The writer of the Pentateuch presents his work entirely as history (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 161).

Fancy that: the father of Reformed biblical theology (and who was the greatest precisely because of, and not in spite of, his unified encyclopedia) rejecting the mythical interpretation of Genesis! May those who are motivated by the desire to look respectable in the world of academia take note that Vos was not afraid of what others might say, and he feared God rather than men.

Quotation of the Week

This week we hear from Douglas Kelly, who is commenting on Revelation 6:9-11, the fifth seal wherein the martyred saints under the altar cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?” Kelly says,

Once the saints have been martyred, they do not lose their effectiveness in changing the course of world history…To rid themselves of the testimony of these believers, who were showing up the darkness of the evil works of sinners by their humble and holy lives, the world system said, ‘Let’s dispatch them. Then we shall be rid of their annoying influence, and our lives will no longer be disturbed by their Christian testimony.’ But look at what actually has happened: they have only dispatched them to a place of tremendous authority that they can now exercise near their heavenly father’s heart in heaven, as they are praying. (commentary on Revelation, p. 125-6).

This is a very interesting idea, and one that I have not really thought of before. One is reminded a little bit of what Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader during their battle near the end of Star Wars that if Darth strikes him down, he will only become more powerful than he was before. If the world powers were smart about this, they would not martyr Christians for their faith, since they only help the Christian cause in the world through doing so. However, world powers have never been smart about this. In fact, they seem intent on killing as many Christians as they can. It is no coincidence that the greatest and fastest growth of the Christian church is happening hand in hand with the greatest number of martyrdoms the world has ever seen. Instead, if the powers that be want Christianity to die out, they should lure Christianity into the regions of comfort and sensuality, like what is happening in the West.

Quo Vadis?

In this new series of posts, I will look at where the PCA has been in the past, and then seek to show where we are headed in the future. I will be taking as my baseline the volume of Position Papers edited by Paul Gilchrist. The volume covers the years 1973-1998.

The first entry is in some ways the most important. It is “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World From the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church.” For those who don’t know, the PCA was originally called the National Presbyterian Church, but quickly changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in America.

The first main point the letter makes is that separation had become necessary. This is not something they rejoiced over, but rather mourned (“with great sorrow and mourning,” p. 7).

Secondly, it says that the basis for the authority of the Church is nothing other than the Bible. A standard statement of the Bible’s inerrancy follows. The view of the Bible they had was fundamental to all the other issues (see p. 8).

Then the letter states something very important about change. Change comes gradually, and it should not be permitted: “Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated” (p. 8). Notice the accent on confessionalism. It is highlighted even more clearly on the following page: “We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” (p. 9), and then again on p. 10 (quoting the earlier “Address to All Churches”): “We are not ashamed to confess that we are intensely Presbyterian.”

Since the changes came to the PCUS, and those changes were not disciplined, the letter states this: “When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority. In order to proclaim the truth and to practice the discipline which they believe obedience to Christ requires, it then becomes necessary for them to separate. This is the exercise of discipline in reverse. It is how we view our separation” (p. 8).

The last major point the letter makes is that the church must be faithful to the Great Commission if it can expect the Lord Jesus Christ to be present with her.

Some reflections on this letter are in order. The first thing that struck me was the very strong emphasis on confessional Presbyterianism. Indeed, it was because the PCUS was NOT being confessional that the PCA (then NPC) emphasized it so much. This contrasts sharply with some recent attempts to downplay the confessional moorings of our forefathers.

Secondly, the entire paragraph quoted from page 8 on discipline and tolerating error creeped me out a bit, since it feels like confessional Presbyterians in the PCA are in a very similar position. I wonder if the surviving fathers of our denomination could ever imagine that the same thing that happened then is happening now. I heard from someone a while back that even at the founding, someone had predicted that we would get about 40 good years, and lo and behold, a prophet!

How to Reconcile the Immutability of God with “Repent” Passages

On the one hand, we have passages that tell us that God does not change (James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, and Hebrews 13:8. These are quite clear: God does not change. God does not move on to plan B. God is not “open” in this sense to the future. Since these are the clearer passages, we should start with these, and not with the passages that are less clear, like the repentance passages. Going from the clear to the unclear is what the orthodox do. Going from the unclear to the clear (and imposing thereby their own pre-conceptions on to the texts) is what heretics do. This is the error of the open theists (read Socinians!).

So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity? Is this a contradiction with the above set of passages? The answer is no. It doesn’t contradict at all. There is not even any paradox involved. What happens is this: God is utterly consistent in His treatment of human beings, depending on their state and their relationship to Him! Those who are God’s children and have a relationship to Him of child to Father (through adoption) can expect to be treated in a very consistent way. This would be a way that includes discipline, for the Lord disciplines those He loves. However, the Lord will never again treat His child the way a judge treats the defendant.

Similarly, those who are not in a right relationship with God can always expect Him to treat them as a judge treats the guilty defendant. God is long-suffering, and so sometimes that judgment takes a while. Nevertheless, the judgment will come. In other words, what changed in Genesis 6 was humanity, not God. It kept on changing for the worse (see verse 5). When that happens, the relationship changes, and God is always consistent in His treatment of people based on the state of that relationship.

The idea of covenant is heavily involved here. The first category of people we described above are members of the covenant of grace, and will always receive consistent covenant-of-grace treatment. Those not in that covenant are still condemned under the covenant of works, and thus, the more evil they do, the closer to judgment they get.

To sum up here, God does not change. He is always consistent with His character, and always treats people based on the state of the relationship that person has with God, a relationship that is covenantally determined.

One other thing must be mentioned here, and that is the “relenting” of the prophetic literature. Take the case of Jonah, for instance. After Jonah’s rebellion, he goes into Nineveh and preaches the world’s shortest sermon, (“40 days, and you’re toast”). The people repent and God relents. What is going on here? Take note of the 40 days. Why give Nineveh 40 days? Why not just say that it’s going to happen tomorrow? Because, built into every single judgment oracle in the OT, is the understood condition that if the people repent (i.e., their relationship with God changes!), the judgment will either be delayed or eliminated. So the relationship change works in reverse, too. If the relationship changes for the worse, God brings judgment. If it changes for the better, God holds off on judgment. God is rigidly consistent in this! In other words, God does not change, man does.

Narcissism in Ministry

I have been doing a little bit of reading on narcissism recently for various reasons, including a realization that I have some characteristics of this mental condition. There are many ways of defining narcissism, but probably the easiest way to define it is to remember the ancient myth from which the condition gets its name: Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. Words like “ingrown,” “egotistical,” “selfishness” will readily come to mind in defining this condition. Being wrapped up in oneself might be the best single description we could use. Another definition I have seen goes something like this: the primary characteristic of narcissism is an inappropriate lack of boundaries between the narcissist and the other person, whom he will attempt to use in some way. The narcissist sees the other person as an extension of himself. So, the other person exists to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.

One of the things that has been interesting in the literature so far is that the authors I have read agree that our culture encourages narcissism. It is a respectable sin. We give huge amounts of both criticism and idol-worship to the rich and famous, and both of these things encourage narcissism. The fact of the matter is that pastors get this at both ends as well. We have people who love to encourage us, and we have people who love to criticize us. It is just as easy to get self-complacent with the adulation as it is to get defensive about the criticism. Without the grace of God, pastors will VERY often allow this two-pronged engine to drive us into full pathological narcissism. The ministry is all about the minister at that point. The minister usurps the place of Jesus Christ. He becomes the personal lord and savior of his flock. You know that your minister has a big problem with this if he both flares up at the criticism and practically fawns over those people who praise him. What is interesting about this mental condition is that the situation is usually encouraged, while the word describing the situation is feared.

However, it can actually be a relief to know that there is a name for this kind of malady. A lot of people cringe mightily when they hear the term “narcissism.” However, the term (in the literature) is used to describe a range of symptoms. Some people, like myself, have some but not all of the symptoms. It might therefore be more accurate to say that such a person has narcissistic tendencies.

For the pastor who has this, the hardest part is admitting it. Once it is admitted, however, in a very real sense, half the battle is over. Most pastors know from counseling others what needs to happen for people to become less wrapped up in themselves: things like attending the means of grace, service to others, evangelism, and simply making up one’s mind that they will be interested in other people’s lives for the sake of the other person, and not for what he can get out of it.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a narcissist? Here are some clues. 1. The person cannot receive criticism of any kind, no matter how gently phrased. Typically, the narcissist will turn the criticism back on the person offering it. The narcissist gets so good at this kind of deflection that the one trying to offer criticism will be made to feel extremely guilty. 2. The narcissist turns every conversation into something about himself. 3. The narcissist cannot converse on topics that do not immediately interest him. 4. The narcissist cannot understand why anyone cannot drop everything and do something for him.

What can a congregation do if their pastor is a narcissist? First of all, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Constantly keep your pastor in prayer, especially about this issue, if it is known that he has a problem with it. Secondly, be very careful about how criticism and praise come to the pastor. Encouragement is very important to a pastor, so we cannot go to a position where the congregation decides it will never encourage the pastor, lest he “get a big head.” The Bible itself commands us to encourage and pray for our church leaders. So, this is not an option. The question is this: how do we do this in a way that will both build him up and not feed the narcissism? My suggestion is this: phrase the encouragement in terms of praising the Lord for how He has used the pastor instrumentally. That way the pastor knows that his labor is not in vain, but he is also reminded that God provides the growth and gets the glory. Start the sentence by saying, “The Lord has been using you to…”

Criticism can feed narcissism just as thoroughly as inordinate praise can. There will be times when a pastor needs to be brought up short. However, there is a way to do this and a way not to do this. Most of the time, when a criticism comes the way of the pastor, the congregant simply lashes out without any kind of thinking whatsoever. They are angry and upset, and so they just blast the pastor. The congregant needs to make a distinction in his mind between two things. Firstly, is the hurt caused by a difference in perspective about what the ministry is about? Or is it caused by a genuine offense? These are two very different things. No congregant should ever blast the pastor because they see ministry differently. Instead, they should take up the difference of perspective in a calm, reasonable conversation about it. If the hurt is caused by a genuine offense, then the proper course is to tell the pastor in as calm a voice as possible, what the particular action (or lack thereof) made them feel. Do not turn the pastor’s offense into an offense right back at him. This is done so often these days. The offended person escalates the conflict because they want to make the offender hurt as much as they do. The goal of talking about it is reconciliation. Nothing is accomplished by lashing back. Nothing is gained by attacking the personal character of the pastor because of just one offense. Remember to aim with a rifle, not a shotgun. Concentrate on the one issue at hand, and do not ever broaden the scope of the discussion beyond the one single issue. Oftentimes, when a congregant has a problem, they “pile on.” Everything they dislike about their minister comes out in one unhealthy deluge. This is not healthy, and will usually put a pastor on the defensive, which is best avoided at all costs, especially if the pastor is tempted to narcissism.

I believe that this issue is under-addressed in seminaries, and is certainly under-addressed by Christian authors. I did not find a single Christian book on narcissism. They are all written by secular psychologists. This is a very intriguing fact to me. Can it be that narcissism is so much winked at in our society (and even encouraged!) that the Christian church does not even see it as a problem? I believe, on the contrary, that it is a far more widespread problem than any of us imagine.

Are Sacraments Fundamentals?

It seems rather common these days in the PCA for folks to deny that sacraments are gospel issues. The way the intinction debate went is an excellent example showing us how the PCA tends to think about the sacraments. So many people claimed that intinction does not threaten the gospel, so why should we bother? In fact, rather unkind words were thrown in the face of anyone arguing the opposite case (legalistic, Pharisaic, overly narrow, etc.). I have written a fairly comprehensive (all of the most important secondary literature was consulted) paper on intinction, arguing that the Bible is against the practice, because of the symbolism of separating body and blood being closely connected to death. Even intinction is a matter of the clarity of the gospel being preached in the sacraments.

The matter of the recipients of either sacrament is a fundamental of the system. We obviously hold that this is true with regard to the recipients of baptism, since we do not ordain credobaptists in the PCA. Yet, inconsistently, most of the PCA regards the age of the recipients of the other sacrament as non-essential. Why would the age of the recipients of baptism be essential, whereas the age of the recipients of communion not be essential? The only reason I can think of in this regard is that we have let pragmatics and precedent take over. The single most cited reason why we should allow people to believe and teach this (even if they are not allowed to practice it) is that we have allowed this in the past, and that, going back to Wolfgang Musculus, it has been “part of the Reformed tradition,” whatever that nebulous standard implies. To respond, there is nothing in the BCO that establishes past precedent as constricting future action.

As I have written in the past, there are 17 places in the PCA Constitution that assume credo-communion, such that an advocate of PC CANNOT claim a difference with only one part of our standards. The difference is FAR more fundamental. The PC advocate has a completely different view of how the sacrament works. Reformed theology has always claimed an active component in the reception of the LS, unlike what is required in baptism, which is wholly passive. The PC advocate denies the distinction between the sacraments, ironically demonstrating that he has not thrown off his Baptistic assumptions enough.

If the sacraments are not gospel issues, then why should we not ordain someone who holds to transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Memorialist? Usually, we’re not willing to go there. But then, that would mean that we view some sacramental issues as gospel issues, and other issues as not gospel issues. Perhaps this is true. I, for one, am not willing to die on the whole grape juice versus wine debate, though since Jesus used wine, I see no reason why we should ever have switched to anything else. But this is a different question from the recipients of the sacraments.

So, this blog post is addressed to the evangelical middle of the PCA: I plead with you to consider the evidence, dig through the material, and recognize that the Reformed tradition has always viewed the sacraments as fundamental to the system. They are not peripheral. Our forefathers were willing to die over differences regarding the sacraments. That is because the sacraments preach the gospel. They are gospel issues.

On How to Treat Islam and Muslim People

From some of the recent stories that have been circulating about how some pastors have treated the Islamic faith, the Koran, and Muslim people, you would think that these people rejoice in the idea of Muslims going to Hell. The Crusades are apparently not so dead as we had hoped. Any story of a Muslim converting to the Christian faith that I have heard of involves two things: 1. the sharing of the gospel; 2. an outpouring of love. Perhaps the one single thing that speaks to Muslims most powerfully of all is the love of Jesus Christ in action two thousand years ago. One thing is certain: we will not see any conversions of Muslims to Christianity through making fun of their religion, burning the Koran, or flaunting our Western prosperity in their faces. Understandably, these actions make them very upset (though I do not mean to imply that the Muslim attack in Paris was justified: if there is one thing that I have learned about the Muslim faith, it is that Muslims are DEADLY serious about their faith, and they cannot laugh about it). They are the incredibly stupid actions of people who apparently think that they do not have enough attention, and want to become martyrs. I suggest a different approach. Build relationships with Muslims, and show them love and kindness. Show them hospitality (this speaks volumes to someone from the Middle East).

Although I don’t tend to get political on this blog very much, I will say that Ron Paul’s stance on the sovereignty of other nations makes a lot of sense to me. He argues that one of the main reasons that Muslims hate the West so much is because we interfere all the time in their political affairs. We would never tolerate the kind of interference from someone else that we regularly dish out to all the world. What makes us think that Muslim countries are rejoicing when we offer to “help?” Ron Paul argues that our interference with Middle Eastern politics is one reason why 9/11 happened. It is difficult to gainsay Paul’s conclusion on this point. Protect ourselves? Sure. Interfere with other nations? I would prefer not.

John 1:14

Whole Verse: Notice the contrast with verse 1: “WAS in the beginning” versus “became”; “God” versus “flesh”; “With God” versus “among us” (Schaff, in Lange, p. 71). Pink has a very helpful comment on the verse as a whole:

Verse 14 is really an explanation and amplification of verse 1. there are three statements in each which exactly correspond, and ht elatter throw light on the former. First, “in the beginning was the word,” and that is something that transcends our comprehension; but “and the word became flesh” brings him within reach of our sense. Second “and the word was with God,” and again we are unable to understand; but the Word “tabernacled among us,” and we may draw near and behold. Third, “and the word was God,” and again we are in the realm of the Infinite; but “full of grace and truth,” and here are two essential facts concerning God which come within the range of our vision (Pink, p. 42)

Chrysostom says “God’s own Son was made the Son of men so that he might make the sons of men the sons of God.” “He who was the express image of the Father should be the repairer of the image of God in us” (Hutcheson).

“And the Word became flesh” This phrase would astonish the Greek (Burge). The word “became” implies pre-existence (Barnes). O’Day says that this is the first time the word “become” has been used of the Logos (previously, it was only “was,” this is the indicator that the Logos has moved from the eternal to the temporal). The term “flesh” is not corrupt flesh, but mortal man (Calvin). Yet, it is still a synechdoche for the whole of human nature (Calvin). Remember, whatever is not assumed is not healed (Gregory of Nazianzen). Why the term “flesh” then? Schaff answers, “Of all the words which express human nature, John chooses the meanest and most contemptible, viz.: flesh, which, in the O.T., denotes the lower, perishing, corruptible part of man; but even this the Logos did not despise, and thus He became man in the fullest sense of the term” (in Lange). This does not mean “changed” into flesh, but rather took on a new existence in a new form, or “added” a new nature. As Calvin says, “The Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.” Practical benefit is clear in Luther’s answer to Satan, “I am a Christian, of the same flesh and blood as my Lord Christ, the Son of God. You settle with Him, devil!”

“And tabernacled among us” This phrase would astonish the Jew (Burge, p. 59).“And the Son of God thus incarnate is the trysting place wherein sinners may draw near unto, and meet with God, as of old they sought him in the tabernacle” (Hutcheson). Note also that the body is the habitation of pilgrims (Hutcheson). Michaels notes that this world is not the home of the Logos, but is rather a “home away from home.” Henry says, “That as of old God dwelt in the tabernacle of Moses, by the shechinah between the cherubim, so now he dwells in the human nature of Christ; that is now the true shechinah, the symbol of God’s peculiar presence.” Even further, the “among us” implies that the disciples were also part of this tabernacle (Lange).

“And we beheld His glory” Almost certainly a reference to the Transfiguration (Barnes). Don’t forget that Peter wanted to make some tents for them. Maybe his thought was better than he knew!

“Glory as of the Unique One from the Father” The word “as” does not express inappropriate comparison, but rather true and hearty approbation (Calvin). Hutcheson is even clearer: “for ‘as’ here is not a note of similitude or likeness, as when we say of a beggar, he goeth as (or like) a king, but a note of suitableness, as when we say of a king, he goeth as (or as becometh) a king.” The word “monogenes” implies that Jesus’ Sonship is unique (as opposed to Israel, Keener), and is the ground of our sonship (Hengstenberg, p. 46). Lincoln notes the background of this term as being that honor and glory was tied to lineage, and an only son would have an incomparably privileged status in the family. As Köstenberger says, “This designation also provides the basis for Jesus’ claim that no one can come to the Father except through him (14:6).”  Schaff is helpful: “The term refers back to ‘children of God,’ verse 12, and marks the difference between Christ and the believers: 1. He is the only Son in a sense in which there is no other; they are many; 2. He is Son from eternity; they become children in time; 3. He is Son by nature; they are made sons by grace and by adoption; 4. He is of the same essence with the Father; they are of a different substance” (in Lange).

“Full of grace and truth” That the coming of God would not be a source of anxiety, but a source of salvation.

Legalism or Law-loving?

It is nearly impossible these days even to mention the word “law” without being accused of legalism. Certainly, any promotion of actually, you know, keeping the law is out of bounds (sports pun intentional here). Of course, that means that we have to shove many biblical passages under the rug, most notably the entirety of Psalm 119. How can David say that he loves the law?

The essence of the law is love. If more people got this through their thick skulls, there might be a good deal less antinomianism. We love love, but we hate law (and therefore we wind up not doing very much loving, either, because we have a completely wrong view of what love is!). This is a contradiction, my friends. How did Jesus summarize the law? Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Traditionally, that passage has been interpreted as Jesus’ summary of the entire moral law. What we cannot escape, biblically speaking, is the plain old fact that the law reveals God’s own character. Hate the law, hate the Lawgiver. Antinomians hate God when they hate His law.

I very much enjoy watching sports…on Saturday. I have no animus against sports per se, although I agree with Mark Jones entirely that there are some very big, fat sports idolatries going on in America right now. If you are contemplating watching the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, please, please read Mark Jones’s article on the matter first. You’ll be glad you did.

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