1 Clement 32 and Justification

I was reading Thomas Schreiner’s recent book Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, and he referenced this chapter of 1 Clement as a proof that at least some of the early church fathers believed in justification by faith alone. He doesn’t fall prey to the anachronistic fallacy of thinking that Clement’s doctrine was as clear on this point as the Reformers, but more that it was in line with what the Reformers would later say. This chapter is disputed in its meaning between Protestants and Catholics. I will put both an English translation and the original Greek here, and then discuss it in dialogue with Protestant and Catholic interpretations.

English: 1 Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. 2 For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” 3 All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. 4 And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greek: 1 Ἐάν τις καθ᾿ ἓν ἕκαστον εἰλικρινῶς κατανοήσῃ, ἐπιγνώσεται μεγαλεῖα τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ δεδομένων δωρεῶν. 2 ἐξ αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευῖται πάντες οἱ λειτουργοῦντες τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐξ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα. ἐξ αὐτοῦ βασιλεῖς καὶ ἄρχοντες καὶ ἡγούμενοι κατὰ τὸν Ἰούδαν· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ σκῆπτρα αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἐν μικρᾷ δόξῃ ὑπάρχουσιν, ὡς ἐπαγγειλαμένου τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς οἱ ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 3 πάντες οὖν ἐδοξάσθησαν καὶ ἐμεγαλύνθησαν οὐ δι᾿ αὐτῶν ἢ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῶν ἢ τῆς δικαιοπραγίας ἧς κατειργάσαντο, ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ. 4 καὶ ἡμεῖς οὖν, διὰ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ κληθέντες, οὐ δι᾿ ἑαυτῶν δικαιούμεθα, οὐδὲ διὰ τῆς ἡμετέρας σοφίας ἢ συνέσεως ἢ εὐσεβείας ἢ ἔργων ὧν κατειργασάμεθα ἐν ὁσιότητι καρδίας, ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς πίστεως, δι᾿ ἧς πάντας τοὺς ἀπ᾿ αἰῶνος ὁ παντοκράτωρ θεὸς ἐδικαίωσεν· ᾧ ἔστω ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. ἀμήν.

Protestant interpretations include Ingolfsland, Turretin Fan, and my own previous post. For Roman Catholic treatments, look at Bryan Cross, Taylor Marshall, and Matt1618. This will be enough to get on with.

What must first be done is to clear away misconceptions of Protestant and Catholic positions alike in order to arrive at the real issue. For instance, Marshall argues that Protestants have misunderstood the Catholic position for a long time:

The Council of Trent, like Pope Saint Clement confirm that works do not merit the grace of justification. Many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches. As Trent decreed, the justified “increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ” by means of “faith co-operating with good works,” to use the phrase of the Council and that of Saint James. Catholics do not earn the initial grace of justification.

It might very well be true to say that Protestants have misunderstood Catholics on the initial point of what Catholics describe as the process of justification. What Catholics believe is that the grace of God infuses the beginning of righteousness into a person, which infusion is by grace, not by works. Then, throughout life, assisted by the sacraments (in which grace is received), believers co-operate with the grace of God by their works (which come from God-infused virtues). Justification is thus a process that occurs throughout life, and is not complete in this life, though it has its beginning in baptism. To put it in a linear fashion: God’s infusing grace at baptism resulting in the beginning of a believer’s own God-given righteousness->conversion->believer’s cooperation with grace by good works and by use of the sacraments->death->purgatory (for most)->final judgment justification.

Protestants, of course, do not believe that justification is a process, but a one-time act or declaration, based not on infused righteousness, but on imputed righteousness. That righteousness is then not ours but Christ’s. It is not delayed until judgment, but rather the judgment is brought forward in time to the point of initial faith. The transfer of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us happens outside us, not inside us, as RC’s believe with their view of infused righteousness.

What then, do the Catholics say about this passage in Clement, positively speaking? Putting together Matt’s, Taylor’s, and Bryan’s arguments, we come up with something like this. 1. Clement is speaking about being transferred from death to life, from being in the first Adam to being in the second Adam, and this transfer does not occur by means of our works, but by faith (Cross); 2. The faith in view is a faith informed by love (from Galatians 6 and Romans 5:5, Cross). 3. Clement is not speaking of justification by faith alone, but it is evident that we are justified by our works from chapter 30 of the letter (Marshall and Matt1618). 4. As quoted above, the initial grace of the justification process is not merited by our works; 5. Working on one’s own power is not sufficient for justification (Matt1618). 6. The works that contribute to our justification are done by God’s grace (Matt1618).

It is to be noted here that an issue arises that also arose in my debates with Doug Wilson on faith’s aliveness. Protestants believe that faith alone justifies, and that the aliveness of faith, while present even at the moment of justification, is not directly relevant to the question of justification. In other words, faith does not justify because it is alive. This would make faith’s aliveness into a ground for justification. Rather, faith justifies because of the Person on Whom that faith rests. Christ’s person and work is the ground of our justification. This leads us to a serious caricature of the Protestant position that Catholics hold. Catholics seem to believe (this seems evident particularly in Cross’s treatment) that because Protestants do not believe that our love for God plays any part in our justification, that therefore Protestants must believe in justification by a dead faith. The faith that justifies is alive, but does not justify because it is alive. It justifies because of its connection to the One Who justifies us. This leads, though, directly to a counter misinterpretation of Catholics by Protestants, who fail to make the distinction that Catholics make between virtue and works. Cross puts it this way:

Protestant theology tends not to give conceptual space to agape as a virtue, seeing it only as a work. Scott Clark, for example, denies that faith and agape are virtues. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding on the part of Protestants, who think that when Catholics talk about faith-informed-by-agape, it means faith accompanied by works. If it meant that, then we could have no confidence that baptized babies who die before reaching an age in which they can do any works, could be saved. But, we believe that at baptism, the virtues of faith, hope, and agape are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the infant is justified at that very moment, because he now has faith-informed-by-agape, even though has not yet done a single good work.

In other words, for RC’s, virtue can be infused and received without any works being present, and that therefore the justification of a baby, while still by an infusion of grace, consists of an infusion of faith informed by virtue, specifically faith, hope, and love. The difficulty with this formulation becomes obvious when we compare this version of “virtue” with faith itself. If faith without works is dead, then how can virtue without works be alive? Cross seems to be allowing for a situation where a virtue can be present without any manifestation of it whatsoever.

So now the question remains: what does Clement mean? Does 1 Clement 30:3 (the operative phrase is “being justified by works and not by words”) control somehow our understanding of 32? Ingolfsland argues that it does not, and that Clement is simply speaking in the manner of James:

As we have seen, however, this phrase is part of a longer train of thought that can be traced back to First Clement 26:1 where Clement is talking about holiness that is the result of “good faith.” Clement is not speaking of people who need to be saved but to those who are already “his own portion” (1 Clem. 29:1; 30:1). Clement is arguing that those who already belong to the Lord should be careful to do good works. It is in this context that Clement must be understood when he continues, “keeping ourselves from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words” (1 Clem. 30:3).

As might be guessed, I find Ingolfsland’s argument more convincing than Taylor’s and Matt1618’s, because Ingolfsland understands 30:3 in its own context (both immediate and larger), whereas Marshall and Matt1618 do not make the attempt to argue what 30:3 means in its immediate and larger context. I commend Ingolfsland’s entire article on the question as a well-argued paper that indirectly answers the RC arguments.

Advertisements

The Judgment of the Canaanites

It is a fairly common objection to the Bible and to all forms of biblical faith that a God who would order the extermination of all the Canaanites by the Israelites cannot be a loving God, and therefore cannot be any kind of god that they would want to worship.

There are a number of answers that have been posed to this question that are inadequate for anyone wishing to take the Bible seriously. One answer is that God did not prescribe the war, He simply decreed it. This falls foul of the Scriptural injunction that God gives to wipe all the Canaanites out. He commanded them to do it (though with very important exceptions, as will be noted below. The exceptions, in fact, point us in the right direction, as I will argue). Another inadequate answer is that Israel falsely attributed the command to God, but actually conquered Canaan on their own steam. Nor is it adequate to say that all forms of warfare are evil, as if there were no such thing as a just war. Christian ethicists have argued from Scripture through all the centuries of church history that there is such a thing as a just war. The question is a formidable one, and it will not do to simply wish the problem away, or explain it in such a way as does not do justice to the biblical data.

The exceptions to the genocide are, as state above, quite important. Rahab and her family were spared. Why were they spared? Because of their faith. The Gibeonites were spared. Why were they spared? They believed that the land was going to Israel, and they feared the God of Israel. They used underhanded methods to gain their lives. And yet, while there is a reproach from Joshua directed towards the Gibeonites, there is no reproach from God, interestingly. In fact, in David’s time, the Gibeonites are allowed to exact justice on the seed of Saul’s line because Saul violated the treaty made with the Gibeonites. In both cases, there was a belief (on the part of the people spared) that God’s people Israel had the right to the promised land, and that Israel’s God was the true King of all named gods. There was a measure of faith, in other words. Whether we would call that saving faith is a question that would go beyond the evidence.

But if a faith, a belief that Israel’s God was the real deal was sufficient to create an exception, then we may infer from this fact that the Canaanites, as a general rule, did not worship the one true God at all. This is well-documented in Scripture. The false gods of the Canaanites (Molech, Shamash, Baal, etc.) are mentioned over and over again. The sin of the Amorites is mentioned in a revealing way: it is something that is not yet full earlier in redemptive history (compare Genesis 15:16 with later mention of the Amorites), thus pointing to a long-suffering patience on God’s part (He could have judged them far earlier!). Sin and faith then can be seen as the central issues here. The majority of the Canaanites were unbelievers who lived extraordinarily sinful lives (Leviticus 18). The exceptions were spared!

This brings us to the question: what did the Canaanites deserve? Did they deserve life? Did they deserve heaven? No one deserves life, and no one deserves heaven. The evidence suggests that they were a very sinful people on whom God’s judgment is therefore entirely just.

The objection immediately comes to mind, however: what about the women and the children? What had they done? The evidence of Balaam and Balak in Numbers suggests that the Canaanite women actively tried to seduce the Israelite men in order to get them to worship false gods. Ok, then what about the children? Weren’t they innocent? Psalm 51 states that children are sinful from the time of conception. Not even children are innocent. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never had children. They are not the cute little innocents that we think they are, though they certainly have not had opportunity to become Jack the Ripper. The point is this: what does anyone deserve? The simple truth is this: none of us deserve a single day of life on this earth. We have no right to demand anything of God any more than the pot has the right to demand anything of the potter.

If one wants to talk about the most evil event that has ever happened in human history, we cannot look to the genocide of the Canaanites. That was God’s judgment on a wicked people. God used the judgment as simultaneously giving Canaan to His people to be the promised land. Later on, when the Israelites became terribly wicked, God did the same kind of thing: He used another nation to judge Israel. But the most evil event cannot be the genocide of Canaanites. It cannot even be the Holocaust, as horrific as that was. The most evil event in history is the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory.

God has infinite dignity. A sin against God is therefore a sin against an infinitely holy God with infinite dignity. Try this thought experiment: contemplate the differences of the consequences that a slap in the face has with regard to the following people: what would happen if you slapped a hobo on the street, a fellow citizen, a police officer, the President of the United States, and the God of the universe? The same action has drastically different consequences depending on the dignity of the person being offended. Imagine, then, the heinousness of putting to death a person who is both God and man in one person, and therefore has infinite dignity; but who is also absolutely innocent and perfect. Not only this, but the method of putting Christ to death was the most humiliating kind of death on offer in the Roman world (it was reserved for traitors to the Roman empire: Jesus Christ the most resolute non-traitor, died the traitor’s death in place of traitors). So, the most humiliating death a person could die being inflicted wrongfully on the God-Man, who was and is perfect in every way, is the most evil event in all of human history. This raises the question: why would the genocide of the Canaanites stick in our craw if the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth does not? The truth is that God brought amazing and infinite good out of the infinite evil (the power of God is manifest in its most amazing form just here and at the resurrection of Christ from the dead) of the cross. As Joseph says of his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. What is the good, then, that came out of the genocide (I prefer the term “judgment” for obvious reasons!) of the Canaanites? The Canaanites were judged for their sin, while the Israelites received the promised land from God. This event, in fact, is part of the stream of the story that culminates in the very death of Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, there seems little point in objecting to the judgment of the Canaanites, which seems just. The real question is the marvelous, amazing, and inexplicable mercy of God in sending His Son to die for us.

Why are we here?

I am starting a catechism class for the young people in our church, and I am using the Larger Catechism to do so. So here are some of the notes I have gleaned from the three commentaries on the Larger Catechism (Ridgeley, Vos, and Morecraft), as well as the commentaries on the Shorter Catechism that I own (Whyte, Watson, Whitecross, Williamson, Vincent, Fisher, Flavel, and Boston). Page numbers are to the most recent editions of these works. Question 1 of the WLC addresses the question, “Why are we here?” That is not all it says, of course, as the quotes below will well illustrate. Hopefully I will be able to keep on posting my findings as I go along.

The whole question: Ridgeley says that the first part is the means that leads us to the second part. Morecraft says that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves (115). He says “Happiness is a by-product, not a goal” (116). To begin with this question puts us on the highest possible plane (116). If we begin with “how do we become saved,” then we are in danger of believing that God exists for our benefit (116). Morecraft notices that this question presupposes the revelation of the Bible (118), since only God can reveal to us our ultimate purpose in life. Morecraft also says that “Our ultimate purpose with reference to God is to glorify Him. Our ultimate purpose with reference to ourselves is to enjoy God” (130). Vos notes that no evolutionist could possibly agree with this question (3). Evolution results in there being no meaning in life whatsoever, except what we make for ourselves. Whyte notes that if there is a chief end, then there are subordinate ends (14). Of course, all the lesser ends should serve the great end. Vincent says “And when God shall be most fully enjoyed by the saints in heaven, he will be most highly glorified” (15). Flavel asks the question, “what then is to be thought of those men, who being wholly intent upon inferior things, forget and neglect their principal end? A. they are dead whilst they live” (141). Boston says much the same: “There is an inseparable connexion betwixt the two, as between the end and the means; so that no person who does not glorify God here, shall ever enjoy him hereafter” (15).

The first part of the answer: Ridgeley says, “That there is a great difference between God’s glorifying himself and our glorifying him” (4). The difference is expressed: “God glorifies himself by furnishing us with matter for praise; we glorify him when we offer praise, or give unto him the glory due to him name” (4). Ridgeley also notes that we glorify God when we confess our sins, when we believe and trust in him, when we have a fervent zeal for his honor, when we improve our talents, when we walk humbly, thankfully, and cheerfully before God, when we are heavenly-minded, and when we submit fully to His will (5). We cannot always think about the glory of God in every second. Ridgeley notices this, and has a great analogy: “As every step the traveller takes is towards his journey’s end, though this may not be every moment in his thoughts, so the less important actions of life should be subservient to those which are of greater consequence, and in which the honour of God and religion is most intimately concerned” (6). Flavel says, “[I]t is the duty and wisdom of every Christian to renounce, deny, and forsake all inferior interests and enjoyments, when they come in competition with the glory of God, and our enjoyment of him” (142). Morecraft adds witnessing to the list of how we specifically honor God (121). He says, “When we truly honor God, we receive the greatest happiness from God a human being can experience: we are honored and glorified by God himself” (121). Watson adds to the list “by standing up for his truths” (15); “suffering for God” (16). Charles Spurgeon once said, “God can honour you, even though nobody else sees that he does it, in such a way that you will be more contented with that honor than if your name and fame were blazoned forth before the whole world” (Morecraft, 123). An illustration: “Lady Glenorchy, in her diary, relates how she was seized with a fever which threatened her life, ‘during the course of which,’ she says, ‘the first question of the Assembly’s Catechism was brought to my mind—“What is the chief end of man?” as if some one had asked it. When I considered the answer to it—“To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever”—I was struck with shame and confusion. I found I had never sought to glorify God in my life, nor had I any idea of what was meant by enjoying him for ever. Death and judgment were set before me; my past sins came to my remembrance; I saw no way to escape the punishment due unto them, nor had I the least glimmering hope of obtaining the pardon of them through the righteousness of another.’ From this unhappy state she was shortly after delivered, by believing on the Lord Jesus as the only Saviour of guilty” (Whitecross, p. 7).

Why must we glorify God? Watson answers: 1. God gave us our being; 2. God made all things for his own glory (Proverbs 16:4); 3. The glory of God has intrinsic value and excellence; 4. Creatures below us give glory to God, “and do we think to sit rent free”? (9); 5. all our hopes hang upon him.

The second part of the answer: Ridgeley notes that in order to enjoy him, we must belong to him in covenant (6). It is imperfect in this life, perfect in heaven (6-7). However, a world of comfort is in that word “forever.” Some people, however, think of God as the great cosmic kill-joy, bent on preventing us from having any fun. God invented fun. The enjoyment consists in union and communion with God (Boston, 14).

The OPC Report on Republication, Part 13

This post will address chapter 4, sections II-IV of the report. Section II outlines some thoughts on the typology of merit. The main point appears to be that typology is inexact. They use the phrase “incomplete correspondence” between type and antitype. The other main point they make is that the WS are reluctant to spell out a lot of issues. Caution is needed, then, when making claims that the WS either offer a republication view, or banish all forms of republication from consideration.

The second section deals with two main issues: the “core commonality” that the various administrations of the covenant of grace have with each other, as well as the fact that the Mosaic covenant is not given preferential treatment in the WS.

This leads to the third section, in which 7 preliminary conclusions are stated. The material point is stated in conclusion 6: “the stated doctrinal system of the confession is not a natural host to the idea of a works principle in substance, rather than administration.” The encouragement is present to qualify one’s terms if a substantial republication is advocated.

In evaluating these sections, it does not seem like much comment is needed. There is nothing muddy about these sections, nor is there much that has not already been said in the earlier parts of the report. The upshot is that substantial republication is seen as inconsistent with the system of doctrine, though even this statement is made very cautiously.

Limited Time Offer on One of the Most Important Sabbath Books Ever Published

My friend Chris Coldwell is offering a tremendous, limited time offer deal on Nicholas Bownd’s Puritan work on the Sabbath. There are two main Puritan works on the Sabbath, of which this is one (the other is Cawdrey/Palmer). It is a fine, critical edition, well-bound (as are all of Naphtali Press works). $16 for this edition is a steal. Take advantage of the offer. Chris is also offering a two-book deal with the second edition of Gillespie’s English Popish Ceremonies for only $35 (another steal!). The Gillespie work is THE work refuting Roman Catholic additions to worship, and defending the regulative principle of worship. Both of these deals are for US shipping only.

The most witty remark about this reprint has to be James Dennison’s quip: “After four centures of rest, Nicholas Bownd’s famous book on the Sabbath has re-Bownded.”

Joel Beeke says: “It is astonishing that the Puritan Nicholas Bownd’s famous work on the Sabbath, which greatly influenced later Puritanism and the Westminster Assembly, and by extension, Western Christendom for centuries, has not been printed in a critical edition with modern typeface long ago. Not reprinted since 1606, this classic work emphasizes the fourth commandment’s morally binding character, the divine institution of the entire Sabbath as the Lord’s Day set apart to worship God, and the cessation of non-religious activities that distract from worship and acts of mercy. I am so grateful that it is back in print, and pray that it will do much good to restore the value and enhance the joy of the Lord’s Day for many believers around the world.”

Self-Esteem

The problem of self-esteem seems to be evergreen. There are those on the left who, like a broken record, will claim that almost all our problems are due to a low self-esteem. The solution seems to be that everyone should find a way to raise their own self-esteem, feel good about themselves, such that they will no longer feel depressed.

On the other hand, there are those who are in favor of such inward self-loathing that the image of God seems to disappear. There don’t appear to be very many of these kinds of people around today, but I have no doubt that there are some, especially among the more suicidal types.

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. However, in order to see the truth about self-esteem, we need to nuance the discussion. It is not a matter of whether we should have high or low self-esteem. Instead, it is a question of which way (or concerning what) we should have self-esteem, and which way we should not.

One reason for having a proper and relatively high self-esteem is that the image of God resides in us. Any view of self-esteem that refuses to recognize this runs the risk of degrading God Himself. Some conservative reactions to the whole self-esteem movement seem to have fallen into this over-reaction. I was one of these once upon a time. A right estimation of ourselves cannot leave the image of God out of the picture. The image of God requires respect, both in ourselves and in others. We must not let the opposite extremes of the self-esteem movement blind us to the fact that many people loathe the image of God that is in themselves, and wrongly so.

The more common mistake, of course, is to press self-esteem so far upon us all that no problems are even to be mentioned. Sin is ignored. The distortion of the image of God that is here by way of the Fall is ignored. This is the main failure of the self-esteem crowd. Are we to esteem that which is not estimable? Are we to esteem that which the Bible calls despicable?

The Bible commends self-loathing if it is connected to the rightly loathsome thing (namely, our sin). See Ezekiel 6:9, for instance. The right balance here is to esteem highly the image of God in us, and to loathe the distortion that sin brings.

Against the Documentary Hypothesis

It is not perhaps as well-known as it should be that Geerhardus Vos published a treatise called The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes. In this volume, he has some wise words about the supposed criteria used to “prove” disparate sources:

What the critics in reality do by this method, is just by a dexterous but suspicious movement to turn in their favor what is in fact against them. That an Elohistic phrase all at once makes its appearance in the midst of a purely Jehovistic environment, is a most perplexing difficulty, which cannot be relieved by declaring it the result of a variety of hands which have been at work upon the composition of the Pentateuch. For it is a sound critical axiom, that diversity of style and diction can only be verified by a comparison of lengthy passages, whose usus loquendi is exclusive. Isolated exceptional cases turn back upon the theory, and prove exactly the opposite; viz., that the criteria intermingle, which is tantamount to saying that they are no criteria at all (p. 29).

Warnings Against Presumption

A very incisive warning against false security is found in Eichrodt’s commentary on Ezekiel 5:5-17:

In both passages (he means Ezekiel 16:48ff in addition to 5:5-17, LK) we see the special danger which overhangs the God-given gift of grace. It is that false security, which prides itself upon its privileged position, making it into a pillow for human sloth and selfishness to slumber on. God’s free gift ought to be regarded as a call to service; it does not at all satisfy man’s lustful desires, but it does open to the human will a new possibility of union with God’s saving will. But man instead soothes himself with irrevocable assurances of the divine good pleasure, so as to save himself from having to make any efforts, and to make him the proprietor of a divine domain specially reserved for him alone to enjoy. This refusal to make the right response to the question which lies in God’s gift can have no other outcome but disregard for the ‘statutes and ordinances'” (Eichrodt, Ezekiel, p. 91).

A Nerdy Complaint

This is probably not something that very many (any?) of my readers would care about, but I felt like complaining about it, because it’s just irritating. One expects to find continuity among the classifications of Hebrew vocabulary among the dictionaries and lexicons, especially in terms of classifying homonyms. This, however, is not consistent at all. The word I found this morning that was inconsistently classified was חָלַק. This is a homonym, meaning that there are two completely different meanings of the word for the exact same spelling, much like the word “lie,” which can mean “recline” or “falsehood.” According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, חָלַק I means “smooth” while חָלַק II means “divide.” The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis agrees with this classification. However, the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew reverses the classification, and makes חָלַק I “divide” and חָלַק II “smooth.” Why the alteration? No reason is given. This kind of confusion does not make it helpful when commentaries simply reference the one or the other Roman-Numeraled definition, as if everyone is supposed to know the classification. It would be nice if at least the classification was the same, even though advances in linguistics will ensure that the definitions will not always be the same. Ok, nerdy rant is over. I can’t believe you actually read to the end.

An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

Let it be known at the beginning of this post that I love the Psalms, and that I believe the Psalms should be sung in worship frequently, just not exclusively. I heard this argument recently from a new friend of mine in the OPC, by name, the Rev. Brett Mahlen. He used to be EP himself, and so he knows the position from inside, as it were. The argument goes like this: the way most EP proponents phrase the matter is that we can only sing in worship words that are inspired, and that the Bible commands us only to sing the Psalms (usually they interpret Colossians 3:16 to refer to the Septuagintal division of the Psalter into psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs). The argument from my friend addresses the first half of the statement. If we may only sing inspired words, then we cannot sing in English, since the translation into English is not itself inspired; only the autographs are inspired. If we then say that the English translation (into meter, which involves considerable paraphrasing!) is inspired, then we are undermining our doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration. English metrical Psalms, as beautiful as they can be (and most worthy of being sung, I might add!), are not inspired Scripture.

Furthermore (and this is now my addition to the argument), by saying that only the very words of the Psalter may be sung, proponents of EP commit a word-concept fallacy. To remind ourselves, the word-concept fallacy is an error in logic that happens when people believe that words are the same thing as ideas, whereas the truth of the matter is that we use words to express ideas, even though those ideas could be expressed with different words. To flesh it out a bit more, an idea can be present even though a specific word is not used. Similarly, just because a specific word is present does not mean that the idea is also present. In this case, the word-concept fallacy is committed by saying that what is meant in the Psalter can only be obtained by singing the very words themselves. Then the error is compounded by saying that the English metrical Psalters can fit the bill of singing the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Scripture. Ironically, in other places in their Reformed theology, EP proponents would not commit this fallacy. For instance, Reformed EP proponents all (as far as I know) hold that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible. They recognize that the concept of the Trinity is very much present (even obviously so!), and yet the word “Trinity” is not present. The word “Trinity” is our shorthand to express the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. So there is not a consistency here with EP proponents: they say that we may only sing the very words of the Psalter, and yet they advocate English metrical Psalters to accomplish this, which English Psalters are not the very words of the inspired Psalms.

To push the point a little further, we may remember that several commentators on the Psalms have said that the Psalter is a mini-Bible. My description of the Psalter would be that it is an emotional commentary on all of Scripture, mostly in the form of prayers. The Psalter thus extends its influence on all the rest of Scripture in one way or another. If this is so, then it is by no means unreasonable to assert that any hymn that is biblical in content reflects the teaching of the Psalter.

Of course, no case whatsoever can be made for a position that says we must all learn Hebrew so that we will sing the Psalter in the original language. That would again commit the word-concept fallacy. The content of Scripture can be translated into other languages, and it is the content of Scripture that we want available to us. Translation of Scripture is implied in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, among other places.

So the EP proponent, if he admits the force of this argument, might respond by saying, “Well, as long as we have the content of the Psalter, then we are good.” However, once one has gotten over the hump of the word-concept fallacy, the whole game is given away, because of what I wrote two paragraphs ago. It seems to me that the claim that we must only sing the inspired Psalms is an essential linch-pin in the EP argument. Without it, the whole thing collapses to the ground. The EP proponents singing metrical Psalms in English are not singing the inspired Psalms, because they are not singing the original Hebrew.

My position is that we must sing only what is biblical. But by the term “biblical” I mean what is biblical in content. We do not need to sing only the very words of Scripture. Otherwise we would have to sing in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of “biblicalness” when it comes to what we sing. Some can only marginally be called Scriptural. Songs like “In the Garden” have content that can be argued as being anti-biblical (really, an experience that none other has ever known? Are you the recipient of direct divine revelation or something? What kind of walking and talking with me is the song singing about?). We should aim, therefore, to ask the right question: is this hymn biblical in its content?

« Older entries