Is Musical Beauty All in the Ear of the Behearer?

The following is a talk I gave at the worship conference at Christ Church of the Carolinas. It is a longer post, because it is a talk that lasted a little less than an hour.

“You like what you like, and I’ll like what I like.” “It’s all a matter of personal preference.” “You have your music and I have mine.” “Different strokes for different folks.” Is musical beauty all in the ear of the behearer, just as visible beauty is all in the eye of the beholder? Is it all just a matter of personal preference and taste? Or does the Bible and natural revelation teach us something more nuanced than that? We can phrase the question this way: is musical beauty all entirely relative, or are there standards that we can discover from the Scripture and from nature that point to some objective standards? Now, let me be clear: personal taste and preference are not irrelevant. And, in suggesting that there is such a thing as an objective standard for musical beauty, I am not suggesting that therefore everyone has to like only a certain kind of music. Nor am I suggesting that an objectively beautiful piece of music would need to be appreciated by everyone alike. Different factors can play in to whether a person “likes” a certain piece of music. I know many professional musicians, for instance, who have heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony so often that would really rather not hear it yet again, as beautiful and magnificent a piece as that is. I know of piano teachers who refuse to teach Beethoven’s Für Elise, for similar reasons. However, I am not primarily here to talk about personal preferences, and why people like some kinds of music and not others. My purpose is to ask about the music itself. Is there anything like a standard of beauty apart from what we think about it? My position is that there is a standard of beauty, and that Scripture and natural revelation tell us about it. Just about everything that I am going to say today goes out on a limb. Just about every sentence would be contested by someone or other. Just know that I am aware of that. I will try to make a case for a particular view of musical beauty. It is not the majority position among Americans.

For Scripture, I would direct us to Philippians 4:8, which reads as follows in the ESV: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There are two points I wish to draw our attention to in this text. Firstly, Paul’s words imply that there are things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. They are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise regardless of our reaction to these things. This state of affairs would, in fact, be true even if no human being could appreciate it. I’m sure that some of us have heard about the old saw that if there was a rose in the middle of a field that no one ever saw, would it still be beautiful? Similarly, if an avalanche of rocks happened, and no one heard it, would it still make a noise? According to Paul, the answer is yes. These philosophical questions, of course, usually presume that God is not part of the picture. However, we cannot take God out of the picture. There is always an audience. God makes many things that only He appreciates fully. Stars that are tens of billions of light years away that we cannot study properly because we cannot see them clearly, God still appreciates the work of His fingers. And when God creates something, it is always good. Ultimately, that is the reason why Paul says what he says. In studying whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him. We follow his fingerprints, in order to figure out what God is doing, and thereby marvel at God’s creative power and infinite wisdom. So, these things are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, because God makes them so, ultimately speaking. Even things that humanity creates can only be so because God creates humanity. Our creativity is always derivative. We create because God first created us.

What logically follows from God’s creation of things on earth is that God defines what is beautiful in His creation. And that is everything that He has made. The refrain in Genesis 1 is that God saw what He had made and pronounced it good. Then, when God looked at everything He had made, He says that it was very good. All creation, as God created it, is good, and therefore worthy of pondering. Humanity, however, has not gone in the same direction as God’s original creation. The Fall brought ugliness, chaos, sin, rebellion, evil, and death into the world. We believe that the creation is still good, but that we humans have marred the creation. We have distorted creation, and put it out of kilter. This means also that rebellious humanity has often substituted the ugliness of sin and rebellion for the beauty of God’s creation. We have called good bad and bad good. The Fall has had a profound effect on our ability to recognize beauty as well as manufacturing our tendency to make God’s creation ugly. Similarly, when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, that also affects their ability to recognize beauty. Even as we say that, we have to remember that the existence of beauty is one thing, and the appreciation of that beauty is something different. This can help us to understand that something can be beautiful even if it is not appreciated, or appreciated differently. Something outside of us can be objectively beautiful, even if our subjective capacity is not up to appreciating it. So, beauty in music is objective. Our subjective likes and dislikes do not change whether something is beautiful or not. It only affects our enjoyment or appreciation of it.

Equally important is that the existence of the Fall means that many things that humans create are not beautiful. If we say that all art or all music is beautiful, then we are denying the Fall. How can a book, for instance, that praises drunkenness, sexual immorality, and idolatry be a beautiful book? The Bible describes these things, yes, but it condemns them! It is possible to describe a fallen world (even the ugly parts most affected by the Fall!) in a beautiful way. The Bible does this perfectly. However, it is not possible to glory in the ugly parts in a beautiful way. So Paul is saying that there ARE things that are beautiful, which implies that there are other things which are not.

The second point I wish to point out in the passage is Paul’s word choice at the end of the verse. He says, “think about these things.” The verb that Paul uses (logizomai) is defined this way in the Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon: “to give careful thought to a matter, think about, consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on.” Paul’s use of the verb here implies that what you think about or ponder must be able to sustain that kind of thinking and pondering. For example, it would be quite impossible to do what Paul is exhorting us to do with a song such as “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” That kind of song simply doesn’t have enough meat on the bones to sink your teeth into! The only way the song is even endurable to someone singing it, is if the singer is drinking all 99 bottles himself! It’s a trivial song. Maybe it was invented purely for annoying people. If so, the inventor was a genius at achieving his goals in life. So, the point we are making is that the material to be pondered must be capable of sustaining that kind of attention. This means that there needs to be a certain amount of depth to whatever it is we are studying in our following Paul’s instructions. It might be difficult to define precisely what it means for something to have depth, but in general, we can think of it this way: is the substance completely accessible on the first seeing or hearing? Or is there more to it than that? If there is more to it than simply complete and instant accessibility, then we are dealing with something that has depth enough to be considered according to Paul’s criteria. We can probably all agree that “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” just doesn’t cut it as something worthy of sustained attention and meditation! So, to summarize where we have gone so far: Paul tells us that there are things worthy of sustained attention, and that we should give sustained attention to those things. Along the way, we have noticed that God the Creator defines what is beautiful, and that we humans have often substituted something ugly for something beautiful, and we have often denied the effects of the Fall in the realm of art. Now, we will turn our attention to natural revelation, and see if it can tell us anything about beauty in music.

We immediately run into problems here, however, for music is difficult to define. Finding the one essential aspect of music that makes something music is difficult. If we go with melody as the essential aspect, then what do we do with a drum solo that has no melody? Is that not music? Harmony does not always exist either, for there are hundreds of songs that have no harmony, but only melody. Rhythm is firmer ground, because all music has a rhythm of some kind. The notes or sounds have to occur in some kind of order, even if that order is not always intentional. Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines music: “That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of emotion.” Later on, it gives an even more basic definition: “Sounds in melodic or harmonic combination, whether produced by voice or instruments.” I would want to add rhythmic in there, so as not to offend our dear friends, the percussionists. So the definition would then run like this: “Sounds in melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic combination (or any two or all three of these three elements), whether produced by voice or instruments.” The thing I like about the earlier definition, however, is the emphasis on beauty of form and the expression of emotion. These are two very important elements to which we will be returning. That gives us enough of a definition of music to go on with. The question now is this: how can we tell if a given piece of music is beautiful or not?

I believe the first place to start is with a recognition of music’s parallels with human language. Music is a form of communication, and it has a language. Even that is disputed by some musicologists (as is almost every sentence of what I am writing!), but for the purposes I have in mind here, the parallel will serve as a very helpful illustration. Music is a kind of language. We know when someone is communicating to us well or poorly, depending on whether they are expressing themselves accurately or imprecisely. But, even more than that, we can tell the difference between language that is beautiful and language that is ugly. Humans have not left language alone with regard to the Fall either! We can tell the difference between Revelation 21:4 on the one hand, which says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away;” and four-letter curse words on the other hand, which are vulgar and ugly forms of communication. However, there is more to it than that. Revelation 21:4 could be recited in an ugly way. This introduces the person who reads the words (or, in the case of music, performs the notes). If I read the text in such a way that each word exists all by itself and has no apparent relationship to the other words, then we have what a computer would do. This is something I always do for my voice and piano students. I recite the first words of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in two ways. The first way is like this: Once…there…were…four…children… whose…names…were…Peter,…Susan,…Edmund,…and…Lucy. The second way I read it is the more natural way that we would use in normal conversation. The point I am trying to raise with that is that music is a language and there are significant parallels.

For instance, English, to pick the obvious candidate for our purposes (though most any language would work for the analogy), has letters that make up words that are grouped in phrases and sentences. Those sentences are then grouped into paragraphs, chapters, and then books. Similarly, music has notes instead of letters (and even those notes are called by letter names!), small groups of notes instead of words, phrases that match English phrases, and longer phrases that match sentences. The phrases are then grouped together into periods and sections, which can then be grouped into movements in some cases, and entire works.

This parallel from verbal language to music has a very important point of application to us. What makes effective communication that will not bore the listener to tears? There needs to be form and order, as well as expression. How do we communicate this in music? Here is, I believe, the secret to all great music: the arch. Another way to say it is musical line. There are many pianists out there, say, who can play absolutely anything with their fingers because they have complete dexterity, and they have practiced their technique to the point of mastery, but couldn’t express something emotional or otherwise to save their lives. This is what I usually call the computer syndrome. Computers have come a long way since they first started being able to make sounds. You can even, with a great deal of work, get a computer to have a crescendo (gradually getting louder) or a diminuendo (gradually getting softer). However, the one thing a computer still can’t do (at least I’ve never heard it yet) is musical line. Arch. Rising and falling action. Let’s go back to English language. In a novel, what do you have for most of the book, if it is well-written? You have rising action. Rising tension. The protagonist(s) are struggling with obstacles in the way to achieving some goal. These obstacles must prove very difficult to overcome, or else you could not have an entire novel about it. At a point near the end of the book, there is a crisis. It is the point of greatest tension, greatest dissonance. Then the action resolves somehow. If it resolves in favor of the protagonist, then you have some form of “he lived happily ever after,” a happy ending. And if it resolves against the protagonist, then you have a tragedy. In music, you have a very similar structure in well-composed music. There is rising action, rising tension, greater and greater dissonance until you reach the high point of the phrase, or section, or piece. After that, the dissonance is resolved. Obviously, the resolving has to be near the end. In the case of a novel, it is quite impossible to have the climax of the novel be in the middle, because what would the author do for the remainder of the book? Just repeat himself over and over again about how happy the protagonist is? That just doesn’t work. It’s lame, and the audience won’t stay to read the rest of it! No, the climax is always near the end. The end consists of wrapping up loose threads of the narrative. Music is very similar. What is true about good music is that there are arches within arches. Phrases have this rising and falling action, and the phrases are connected together in a much larger pattern of rising and falling action. The whole piece is also rising and falling action. Bad music doesn’t look like this. Bad music hovers around a fixed point, like someone reading in a monotone. And bad performance takes those arches and flattens them into a pancake. Any of you who were here last night heard lots and lots of arches, whether you knew you were hearing them or not.

This observation about music as compared to novels can be supported greatly from special revelation, the Bible, and I mean here the structure of biblical revelation as a whole. The Old Testament is nothing if not rising action. The obstacles (antagonists) are sin and Satan. The protagonists are God and the seed of the woman. Which seed will win out? The seed of the serpent or the seed of the woman? Through the promised seed in the promised land, God brings to completion in Jesus Christ the ultimate plan of redemption. There, too, we can see that the crisis, the climax of all redemption is the person and work of Jesus Christ, focused especially on the cross and the empty tomb. And, if you look at the size of your Bible, and where that climax occurs, it occurs near the end of each of the gospels, which is well past the half-way point in the Bible. The rest of the Bible after that is teasing out all the implications of what Christ has done, and leaves us with the ultimate resolving of all things in the book of Revelation.

So, since this has all been pretty much at the level of the concepts, what does this look like in the worship music of the church? I have until now avoided the so-called “worship wars,” because I believe that these standards of musical beauty cross many lines. The most obvious divide is that between “Contemporary Christian Music,” or CCM, and traditional hymnody. I would say this: there are good and bad hymns, just as there is good and bad CCM. The date of composition is not what matters. All music was once new. What matters is whether it communicates in the way we have been demonstrating. That being said, I will say that, in general terms, hymns communicate musically in a more beautiful way than CCM does. This is because good hymns tend to have the arch-shaped phrases, whereas CCM tends to hover around a fixed point. Notice that I said “tends.” That is because there are some really terrible hymns out there that have no arch at all to the phrases. I think of many hymns from the revivalist tradition, for instance. Now, if I step on your toes at this point, because there might be some revivalist hymns you love, or some CCM that you love, realize it is not my purpose to be combative here. And, there are good modern hymns that have the arch-shaped phrases.

The other principle that is absolutely essential is whether the tune fits the words. Here also I must raise an objection to CCM. CCM has no resources for setting sad words. Psalm 88, for instance, is a very sad Psalm, a Psalm that mourns, and that sees and plumbs the depths of darkness. It should not have happy, major-key upbeat rhythmically snappy tune to go with it. It should have a sad tune that laments. Incidentally, the whole issue of lament is one that we need to think through in churches. Carl Trueman, one of my professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, once wrote a spot-on article entitled “What Can Miserable Christians Sing? (now printed in this book) When you’re feeling depressed, or sad, you don’t always feel like singing something cheerful. You tend to want to sing something that expresses how you are feeling.

However, and this is a big caveat, music in worship is not primarily about how we feel. This is a mistake that 99% of Christians make when they are trying to decide what to sing in worship. They want to sing something familiar, or something catchy, or something upbeat. Why? Because of how it makes them feel! The whole point of this conference, however, is that worship is service to God, not service to us, and that includes our music. So the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether we feel a certain way when certain music is done in worship, but what words and music will best serve and glorify God? That doesn’t mean we check our emotions at the door and sing in a monotone. Everything we have been saying militates against that sort of thinking. Singing in a monotone is not artistic music. It is a computer.

One last thing deserves mention here. This view of art does not make hymn singing or hymn-playing impossible for the average person. It is not a question primarily of technique. As I mentioned before, plenty of people with technique to burn are thoroughly non-artistic. When you sing, remember language. Remember rising and falling action. Remember how the words fit together with the music. Sing in sentences. In the best hymns, the words fit the music and the music fits the words. That is true beauty in worship music. That should be our goal.

A Chronology of Jesus

(Posted by Paige)

In a bid to enhance biblical literacy in our congregation, I’ve dabbed many a brushstroke onto the walls of one room in our building to provide our Bible teachers with enormous maps and timelines to illustrate their lessons. I’ve just embarked on the most complex of the timelines, an attempt to sort out the events of Jesus’ ministry years into more-or-less chronological order; but I’m finding that I need to do some homework here before I commit myself in acrylics. Maybe some of you redemptive-history buffs can help.

First off, where do we get the idea that Jesus’ ministry was three years long? Is this simply implied in his parable about the barren fig tree in Luke 13:7 – “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none”?

Second, have any of you ever seen a decent attempt to harmonize the events in the Synoptics with Jesus’ several visits to Jerusalem as described in John? I’m thinking of grouping the events from the Synoptics above the timeline, and adding the punctuation of the holiday visits to Jerusalem from John’s account below it.

Not to mention the Lazarus event – am I correct to read this as the unnamed catalyst that turned Jesus southward from Galilee towards Jerusalem late in the Synoptic accounts? (Though John maybe implies that Jesus was in Perea just prior to that cataclysmic miracle – “He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained,” Jn. 10:40. So was he in Galilee or Perea when the message reached him [Jn. 11:6,“he stayed in the place where he was”]?)

I realize that the best we can do here is make educated guesses, so I’m hoping that some of your education in this area exceeds mine. Thanks in advance for your expertise!

If you’d like to see some of the murals from our Chart Room, check out the wall of my biblical literacy site. I have yet to figure out how to photograph the 20-foot timeline of redemptive history, but you can at least take a look at the maps. (The full-map JPEGs work great as Power Point slides, by the way – so I take my walls with me when I teach elsewhere! You’re welcome to borrow them too, if you’d like.)

Up to Some Good (I Hope)

(Posted by Paige)

It’s been a while since I had time or thought enough to post anything here. Much of my brain space lately has gone into planning and carrying out the home-schooling of a high-schooler – I get to prep him for the English and History APs this year! – and much of my writing time has gone into building up an online library of Biblical Literacy materials.

But here is one thing I can share with you, as a resource to pass along to anyone who would like to gain a bit more knowledge of the big sweep of redemptive history. This is a 36-minute talk that I put together for a Bible conference this October, one of several short presentations that I’ve offered to introduce the Women in the Word Workshop in Willow Grove, PA. (Please note that while the context was a women’s Bible conference, the content is not gender-specific!) My creative entrée into the Big Picture this year was the progressive development of the figure and the idea of “The Christ” in Scripture.

This is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me talking, but ‘cause I made some snazzy slides to go with it. (But it’s possible to listen without looking, if you prefer to multi-task.) Enjoy!

S.D.G.

A Biblical Theology of Clothing | The Christward Collective

A Biblical Theology of Clothing | The Christward Collective.

My friend Nick Batzig doing biblical theology right. Enjoy the feast.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Unique Priesthood of Moses

(Posted by Paige)

We’re working in Hebrews 9 now in my Bible study, and I have been struck afresh by the unique priestly role that Moses has in Israel’s history.  I’m wondering if any of you have remarked on this unique priesthood or taught or read about it.  I’d benefit from your observations about its features and redemptive-historical significance.  Would it be fair to say that Moses’ priestly work of intercession, mediation, & consecration  (esp. Ex. 19-20, 24, 29, 33-34) is something of a cross or a bridge between the patriarchal priestly roles and Aaron’s high priestly line?  It’s fascinating to me that when we think of Israel’s first priest we think of Aaron — but Moses was the priest who installed him!

Thanks in advance for your thoughtful ideas.

Announcing the New Covenant

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a curious question that arose in our Hebrews study recently (starting our second year at ch. 8!):

We understand that the Old Covenant was inaugurated with blood (Ex. 34) and its terms were verbally established for God’s people through the giving of the Law. If the New Covenant was similarly inaugurated with blood (Luke 22), when was its content verbally established?

I suspect possible answers might include one or all of these: at the articulation of the Abrahamic Covenant; in Jeremiah 31; whenever Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand; whenever the gospel was/is proclaimed after the resurrection of the Son. More? How does the NT itself fit into this picture?

Just curious how any of you would frame an answer, and what you would choose to emphasize as the verbal establishment for God’s people of the terms of the New Covenant. Thanks!

Of Tzitzits, Tallits and Traditions

by Reed DePace

Those involved in the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) take great pains to note that they are only calling Christians to a greater consistency with God’s word. To give them all the benefit of the doubt possible, we can even say that they are arguing for these things as expressions of faith, not that gets one saved, but will determine the quality of their experience of salvation. Their argument to other Christians is simple, “but you’re not obeying ALL God’s word.”

Lay aside for the sake of discussion the issue of whether or not the Law of Moses is rightly divided into the moral, ceremonial and civil components. Leave aside also the issue of whether or not the NT amends the practice (but not the principles) of the ceremonial/worship components of the Mosaic Law.

Look simply at the issue of traditions. Jesus admonished the Pharisees:

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

I maintain that the whole of the HRM (and large parts of the Messianic Christianity Movement) are doing exactly what Jesus condemned here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is not a single practice the HRM maintains, as an application of the ceremonial/worship components of the Mosaic Law, that is not in some essential manner NOT tainted by this tradition-over-commandment sin that Jesus condemns.

TNT002-30

Yes, I know, sweeping statements are dangerous. But I’ll risk the potential brashness at this point. In support of my contention look at just one simple practice common among Messianic Christians, that of using a prayer shawl with tassels on the four corners.

In anglicized Hebrew the prayer shawl is called a tallit, the tassels are called tzitzits. Sit down with any Messianic Christian who uses a tallit with tzitzits and ask them to explain the practice. Very quickly they will be offering you arguments based on men’s traditions – NOT the Scriptures.

KariateSeph

Yes they will offer some Scriptures. But like the Pharisees, they will twist those Scriptures to support their traditions. In the case of tallits and tzitzits this is rather easy to see. While tzitzits are found in Scripture (Nb 15:38-39), it is a plain and simple fact that the tallit IS NOT! The practice of using tallits (prayer shawls) is expressly a tradition of men. Further, it is a tradition that comes from unbelieving Judaism!

It is hard to understand how this practice of the Mosaic Law is nothing more than a tradition of man. Therefore, to insist that in any manner its practice is even advisable for Christians, is to teach as holy what Jesus condemned as wicked.

A similar case can even be made for tzitzits, tassels. The Mosaic Law calls for them to be placed on the ends of ALL the exterior garments men wear, not merely a non-commanded tallit, prayer shawl. Again, man’s tradition usurps and yokes God’s word to the task of enslaving God’s children!

Ask about any other “Messianic,” “Hebrew” practice that practitioners of Messianic Christianity insist still applies to the Christian’s belief and practice today. Call me foolish and brash. But I expect I will be proven right to observe that you will see the same exact pattern: man’s tradition, yoking God’s word, to enslave Christians.

It gives me no joy to be proven right. Would that God would free them from their slavery and turn their joy in their traditions into moans of repentance.

by Reed DePace

Gentle-Hardness with the Hebrew Roots Movement

by Reed DePace

O.k., I’ve been admonished twice now that I may be speaking too harshly, without proper biblical gentleness, in some of my comments on the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM). O.k., acknowledging that possibility, let me instead simply lay out from Scripture why I believer strong, even severe words are biblically called for when responding to the HRM.

Let me say up front that the more I hear from proponents of the HRM the more I am persuaded it is a modern form of the Pharisaical-Judaizing heresy condemned in Scripture. More broadly I think these criticisms also apply to a large part of the Messianic Christianity movement (MCM). This follows because the HRM is both a child of the MCM and is the deep doctrinal well which waters the growth of the MCM. I recognize that there exist Messianic Jews who shun with horror the errors of the HRM and more broadly those in the MCM. My criticisms do not apply to them.

In my own pastoral calling I’ve have had to help families affected by the HRM/MCM. It was this need that first prompted my study of this subject a couple of years back. In part I sympathize with those attracted to the HRM/MCM. I acknowledge and affirm their desire for a better relationship with God.

One of the greatest sadnesses in my community is the problem of gospel-presumptive Christians. These are not nominal Christians, folks who are nothing more than culturally Christian. No, these are folks for whom Christianity is a regular part of their everyday life. They have a rudimentary grasp of the basics of the gospel. Yet they have little practical understanding of how to live by the gospel (Rom 1:16-17, Gal 2:20, Col 2:6-7, etc.). As a result they are left to trying to live the Christian life through the use of their own resources (i.e., living by sight, not by faith; 2Co 5:7). So when such folks run across a new (old) teaching that promises a whole new experience of God’s power; that offers out the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the abundant life (John 10:10), it is understandable how the HRM can be attractive to them.

The problem is that what is attracting them is not a better understanding of the gospel at all but something straight from the pit of Hell.

Yes, hard words, but gently offered. Even more importantly, I am not offering a poetic effort at hyperbole to drive home a point. Rather, it is a boiled down, rather basic and unvarnished summary of what the Bible itself teaches about the HRM. Consider this (dates approximate):

AD 39-40: The Church in Jerusalem concluded that God has rescinded the Mosaic Law’s Jew-Gentile separation provisions (Acts 10-11).

AD 49-50 (the exact order of the following series is immaterial to the points being made):

  • Paul confronts Peter and Barnabas for their hypocrisy in separating themselves from Gentile believers in the Church in Galatia.
  • Later, Paul writes to the Galatians to warn them in the strongest terms against (supposed) Christians who were teaching them that Gentile believers needed to keep the Mosaic ceremonial/worship laws in order to be right with God.
  • The Church concluded that Gentile believers ARE NOT to be subjected to the ceremonial/worship provisions of the Mosaic Law (Acts 15).

AD 62-68 (again, the exact dates for writing each of these is immaterial to the points made):

  • Paul writes (First) Timothy, offering him instruction for his pastoral duties (Ephesian Church).
  • Paul writes to Titus, giving him counsel on his pastoral duties (Cretan Church).
  • Paul writes further instruction to (Second) Timothy in the discharge of his pastoral duties.
  • In all three letters one of the critical issues Paul addressed was the heresy of the Judaizers, those who would require Gentile Christians to practice the Mosaic ceremonial/worship laws.

Did you follow the progression of these things? From eliminating Jew-Gentile separation, to removal of Mosaic law provisions on Gentiles, to fighting against those who would place Christians back under slavery to the Mosaic Law. This is as serious as it gets. This is a matter of life and death. Accordingly, the Scriptures speak of these things in the hardest terms. You can see this in the Scriptures themselves:

And he [Peter] said to them [the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household], “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” (Act 10:28-29 ESV)

[Peter speaking to the Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem Church] “If then God gave the same gift to them [Gentile Christians] as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Act 11:17-18)

Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in– who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery– to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (Gal 2:4-5)

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16)

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10)

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:4)

I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:10-12)

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentile believers] and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them,

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Act 15:5-10)

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. (1Ti 1:3-4)

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1Ti 1:5-7)

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1Ti 4:7-8)

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1Ti 6:3-5)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” (1Ti 6:20)

This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. (Tit 1:13-14)

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Tit 3:9-11)

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2Ti 2:23-26)

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2Ti 3:1-5)

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2Ti 4:3-4)

Consider the severity with which Scripture speaks about the teaching that ceremonial/worship aspects of the Mosaic Law still apply to Christians. Emasculation! Devoted to myths! Foolish controversies! Depraved minds! Puffed up with conceit! Unhealthy cravings! Warped, sinful, self-condemned! In the very same passage where Paul teaches us to correct with gentleness he observes that those who buy into the HRM are trapped in the snare of the Devil! Clearly gentleness does not preclude hard words.

If you think I’m missing something here, just stop for a moment a contemplate Paul’s imprecatory warning in Galatians towards those who teach the HRM. Emasculate themselves! What a horrible thing to say against anyone– unless their error is so horribly more dangerous. And that’s just it. The errors taught by the HRM are so egregious that the hardest terms are needed. To be sure they must be spoken without animosity or rancor. Yet in order to be truth spoken in love the severity of the words must match the severity of the danger of the errors!

Or, at least that’s the pattern of Scripture on this subject.

Those who in any way teach that the ceremonial/worship aspects of the Mosaic Law in any practical manner still apply, who teach that the Christian’s relationship with God in any way is affected by his practicing or not practicing these Mosaic Law provisions, are teaching something that the NT says is from Satan himself (i.e., a snare of the devil). We must therefore, for the sake of the souls of both the speakers and the hearers, warn them of the seriousness of their danger. We must with Paul ask God to emasculate their wickedness, to stop up their teaching that they might no longer seek to return God’s people to a slavery that will only destroy them and thereby rob God of the fullness of glory due to him.

The Hebrew Roots Movement, according to the teaching of the NT, is deadly. Accordingly it calls for just as hard an imprecatory warning as found in the Scriptures.

I pray for the souls of the men commenting here in support of the HRM. May God indeed be merciful and grant them repentance. I do not hate them; I hold them no ill will. With Scripture I do offer them the gentle-hardness that Scripture uses to condemn their error. May we all see our errors, and rejoice at the throne of Jesus together.

by Reed DePace

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