I finally passed my registered parliamentarian test this morning. It is without a doubt the single most grueling test I have ever taken in my entire life. The pool of questions is 1400, divided into 5 sections. Many of these questions seem designed to try to trick you. Fortunately, you can take the exam in parts now. I took part IV this morning as the last one.
James Montgomery Boice has some excellent advice to young people in his sermon series on the Minor Prophets (volume 2, p. 510). He identifies a major problem with young people today:
As I counsel with people in our day, many of them young people, I am convinced that one of their biggest problems is that they expect shortcuts. They want a simple principle that will explain all the Bible and eliminate the need for concentrated and prolonged Bible study. They want an experience that will set them on a new spiritual plateau and eliminate the need for hard climbing up the steep mountain paths of discipleship. They want a fellowship that has all the elements of a perfect heavenly fellowship without the work of building up those elements by their own hard work and active participation. This is not the way God has ordered things. He could have given shortcuts, but he has not.
To young people out there: there are no shortcuts. And if there are, they usually lead to long delays, as Pippin would say in The Fellowship of the Ring. Things are not going to be handed to you on a platter. Life is not something you can simply let happen to you. This is not a popular message in an age of instant gratification.
Young Christians often think this way as well. After the euphoria of conversion is passed, they often come to a hard shock: the Christian life is hard work! They often think that they didn’t sign up for this. As Pliable turns back in the Slough of Despond, the very first sign of trouble, so also do many today who call themselves Christians. However, as any seasoned Christian can tell you, conversion is the peace with God that starts the war on the world, the flesh, and the devil. In many ways, life is far more difficult after conversion than before.
Do not think of the Christian life as having shortcuts. Study your Bible thoroughly and deeply. Pray over it and meditate over it. Wrestle with God in prayer. Prepare for the Sabbath Day every single week, so that the Word will dwell richly in you. The Christian life is cumulative.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the proverb “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I think I know what most people mean by this. Most people mean that the gospel has to be embodied in our lives, and that if unbelievers cannot see that, then the ethos of the gospel will not match the evangelist’s life. Integrity is the ultimate thing at issue here. To this extent, the quotation has a useful place.
However, some people take it too far, as if evangelism doesn’t need to use words. Just evangelize by means of your lifestyle. People don’t need to hear the Word. Preaching is over-rated. We don’t need to study apologetics, or have an answer ready for the person who asks us for the reason of the hope that lies within us. Readers can probably guess where I’m going with this one. The quotation can lead to a despising of preaching, of the Word, and of evangelism by means of talking with people.
I hate to break it to the lifestyle-evangelist folks, but the ethos of our lives is not enough. Sooner or later (if our lifestyles are Christian ones), the unbeliever is going to ask us why we’re different. When that happens, we should have an answer ready.
Some people use the Assisi quotation in order to avoid speaking with people, and thus lose many opportunities. Still others use it to ridicule the role of preaching, and thus promote other forms of worship that God has not commanded.
The fact of the matter is that words are necessary. That doesn’t mean that conversion is dependent on us, as the Finneyites would have us believe. The Holy Spirit is the one Who converts. So, we should not get ourselves into a sweat about whether we have the right words or not. Our best arguments, if not accompanied by the Holy Spirit, are useless to convert. By the same token, the Holy Spirit can use our most imperfect efforts to convert. Faith comes by hearing, which implies words. Therefore, I think that even Assisi went too far in the comment, and his zealous followers certainly have.
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.
(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.)
I have always thought of “Contemporary Christian Music” in much the same way that Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. As usual, T. David Gordon nails it on the head. The longer article (well worth reading) is here.
“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.
(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!
September 3, 2015 at 10:05 am (Discipline)
The situation is a bit complicated. South Florida Presbytery has deposed Tullian from the ministry, and assigned him to Willow Creek Church (no relation to Bill Hybel’s megachurch). According to the church’s pastor, Tullian’s position is not one that requires a teaching elder status. This blog post is quite informative. The comments are also instructive.
Knowing a bit more about the situation as we now do, I have mixed feelings about this. It seems to me, on the one hand, that the South Florida Presbytery is doing its duty. They have deposed him and assigned him to a congregation. This is what they should do. It allows Tullian a chance to experience the fruits of repentance and healing. I pray this for him, as for a brother in Christ.
Tullian is on biblical grounds filing for a divorce, by the way. It seems clear that there is a biblical reason for it, even though divorce is not a necessity, even in cases where adultery has happened. I do not believe Tullian is sinning by getting a divorce. Where the blame lies in the marriage, however, is not for me to parse, nor for anyone else who is not in the know.
The question is whether he should have a position at a church so soon. Many are debating the wisdom of this, even given the fact that it is not a teaching elder position, or even a ruling elder position. The reason given in the letter is that it allows Tullian a way to provide for his family. It seems clear that Willow Creek Church and its pastor are being motivated by love and compassion for Tullian. This is a good thing. And it seems that they are discussing some of the important questions like the one raised in this paragraph. This is also good. The uneasiness that many people feel should drive us all to pray for the situation.
I agree with the blog linked above, though, that this position may not be a wise thing for Tullian to have. What is to prevent ministry situations from arising? Will Willow Creek Church guard Tullian from ministry situations? Tullian is not only in pain, but is going through the process of repentance. He will be very vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. He will be lonely, as well, being divorced. Some women will think to find a sympathetic ear in Tullian. Emotional attachment will be hard to prevent, and physical attraction will not be far behind. Does this mean that problems are inevitable? No, but the church must be very wise and discerning about the situation. Clear boundaries and communication with the congregation will be needed, and Tullian should definitely not do any counseling. I do not think it wise for Tullian to have a job like this at the moment. To me, it looks like putting oneself in the way of temptation, or, at the very least, it looks like a failure to deal with temptation as drastically as possible. If nothing bad comes from it because such warnings have been heeded, and clear boundaries set in place, then praise the Lord for that.
UPDATE: apparently some of the information in this post is not accurate. I have new information on the following points: South Florida Presbytery has not as of yet assigned Tullian to a church. They will be doing that at the November meeting. Ditto with their approving his position at Willow Church.
Ask five different pastors this question, and you will get five completely different answers. Paul Levy, for instance, reads a couple commentaries all the way through before starting a sermon series. After that, he uses them only when he’s stuck. Others (and this seems to me to be the majority position) advocate that one should only use commentaries at the very end of the process of writing a sermon or Bible study. Oftentimes, the justification for this position is that one must make allowance for the work of the Holy Spirit, and we should not merely parrot what other people say. Some even advocate that no commentaries should be read until after the sermon is written. My experience is a little different.
I find that after I have gone through the text in the original languages very carefully, I still don’t have very many thoughts of my own. I am not much of an original thinker. I really only form my ideas of what the text says in conversation with others who have delved far more deeply into the text than I have.
As with any theological book, one eats the meat and spits out the bones. The same is true for commentaries. By all means, work through the text carefully on your own (and do it first, not least so that you can understand what the commentaries are saying). However, why limit yourself to your own ideas? Why not allow the historical stream of churchly interpretation to feed into your understanding of the text? I usually find that my final position on a text has a very eclectic set of nuggets gleaned from many different sources. I am often surprised at how it works. A commentary from which I got no help for weeks at a time sometimes justifies its very existence in one week where it nails the text and none of the others did. It can be breathtaking at times. Then there are those commentaries that very often have solid insights on almost every page (though these are rare).
To answer the objection about the Holy Spirit is easy. Firstly, the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. I seriously doubt that reading more commentaries constitutes an obstacle that the Holy Spirit cannot overcome. Furthermore, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit be operating through those commentaries to give you what you need? Can the Holy Spirit use the words of dead white European and American males (and a few of them alive still)? There are some excellent female interpreters of Scripture as well, who have written good commentaries (Joyce Baldwin and Karen Jobes spring immediately to mind)
The saddest thing of all in my mind is when a pastor thinks he is so much smarter than church history that he doesn’t need to read what anyone else thought on a passage of Scripture. Really? So you’re smarter than Calvin, are you? Smarter than Augustine? You have the Holy Spirit and they did not? We are not enslaved to any one interpreter. We are not required to believe everything that any non-inspired theologian wrote. Reading them does not mean that we are limited to them. But iron sharpens iron, as the biblical proverb has it. Why allow ourselves to be dulled by refusing to engage in the great centuries-old conversation about the meaning of the text? Limiting ourselves unnecessarily can result in very dull sermons, where so many nuggets in the text are simply by-passed so that the pastor can get up on his hobby-horse.
Make no mistake: there are dangers no matter what position you take on the reading of commentaries. The dangers of reading lots of commentaries are pride, an overdose of explanation, a presentation of too many alternative interpretations (which can easily bewilder a congregation), merely parroting in the sermon what others say, and confusion in one’s own mind about the meaning of the text. The dangers of reading too few commentaries, however, outweigh the dangers of reading too many, in my opinion. For here are the dangers of reading too few: ingrown, idiosyncratic interpretation; missing too many details of the text; application that has no root in the meaning of the text; stream of consciousness preaching; pride and over-reliance on one’s own interpretive skills (which would fall foul of Proverbs’ dictum to lean not on your own understanding); a despising of church history; a denigration of the Holy Spirit’s work in other ages of the church; chronological snobbery. It seems to me that the dangers of reading too many are more easily avoidable than the dangers of reading too few, since they are more obvious. If a sermon is the result of one mind interacting with many minds about the text, is there not a multitude of counselors? Isn’t that safer? I advocate, therefore, and practice an earlier reading of the commentaries in the process of sermon-writing and Bible study preparation. I advocate reading the commentaries (and as many as time and money allow) right after the careful reading of the text in the original languages.
My thoughts on this year’s GA are not going to be comprehensive, as I was in Overtures Committee, which met for quite a long while simultaneous to the floor of GA itself. I missed the entirety of the Review of Presbytery Records report, for example. However, many of the most important things happened in Overtures this year.
The Overtures Committee (hereafter OC) recommended that GA answer Overture 1 (concerning setting up a mini-SJC for presbyteries) in the negative. There was quite a lot of discussion about this, but the problems with it were just too much. I am against the principle of having any commission being unaccountable to the presbytery that commissions it. I do not regard complaints as constituting full accountability, since complaints have to work against quite a lot of inertia in order to gain traction. The GA went with the OC’s recommendation.
Overtures 2 and 9, concerning the recreation clause, also got quite a lot of discussion, which got a bit heated in the OC. The OC decided, in the end, that our system was not broken, and thus recommended a negative response, which the GA adopted.
Overture 3 (concerning the baptismal vows) also foundered upon the recognition that the language of “dedication” was already covenantal in nature, when one considers the context in which it comes (do you know any Baptist who would be comfortable with BCO 56?). GA followed the committee’s recommendation.
Overtures 4-6 (presbytery boundary overtures) came through other committees besides OC, and they were approved (which means that my presbytery will be multiplying into three presbyteries as of January of 2016).
Overture 7 (concerning compelling a TE to testify) generated a lot of discussion both in the OC and on the floor of GA. The Kuyperian influence seemed rather strong, as quite a few people rather whole-sale imported civil judicial categories into the church (including fifth amendment rights). The vote in the committee was fairly strong on the amended version (which would have narrowed the cases in view to doctrinal cases). However, on the floor, the amended version was narrowly defeated (by about 22 votes, if I remember rightly). This despite the fact that TE David Coffin was the originator of the motion, and argued quite eloquently in favor of it. I think the overture should have passed. We have to be open anyway about what we believe.
In RPR, we won some and lost some. The most important one was won. Philadelphia Presbytery was cited for an exception of substance on their ordaining a man who wasn’t sure that the NT fully excluded women from the church offices. As I understand it, both the man and his church have left for a more liberal denomination. This exception was passed by a rather wide margin.
We lost the Westminster Presbytery vote, and they will have to answer next year’s GA for including language in their standing rules excluding theistic evolution from being an acceptable view.
Eastern Pennsylvania was also lost, concerning the man who had a very FV-sounding exception on paedocommunion (he first stated his difference in such a way as to include all the benefits of salvation to the baptized; on further reflection, he revised his views to state that some of the benefits of the Lord’s Supper accrue to all the members of the visible church, which is not a significant improvement).
The most exhausting thing about GA was the personal resolution offered by TE Sean Lucas and TE Ligon Duncan III on racial reconciliation (the OC spent at least 6 grueling hours on it!). There can be no doubt that this is a timely issue, and a very serious one, given the recent riots in various places in the US. The main issue in the debate hinged on whether the PCA ought to repent now of its racial sins in a less-than-perfect manner, or wait a year and perfect the language and accuracy of the language (and put some wheels on it, so that practical steps might be taken). The African-American Presbyterian Fellowship was not entirely in unison on this issue, thought it seemed that the majority who spoke favored waiting a year, primarily for the practical reasons. Another issue was how the personal resolution came to the floor (skipping the local session and presbytery levels). A more considered and thorough document could be forthcoming if various presbyteries get in the act for next year. Almost the last thing in the GA was a season of prayer for racial reconciliation that lasted well over an hour.
My thoughts on this are a bit mixed. On the one hand, I hate racism with a passion. All people are made in God’s image, and there is no such thing as a second-class citizen among God’s elect. On the other hand, I wonder if we are reacting too strongly to many impulses in the culture that would make white people feel guilty simply for being of the same color as people who have oppressed African-Americans in the past. The personal resolution called on the PCA to confess its sins in its complicity with those who opposed the Civil Rights movement. This was a bit strange to me, since the PCA was not in existence at the time. There are undoubtedly some churches and men in the PCA who were around then who have something of which they must repent. And I have no problem acknowledging that there are such churches and such men in the PCA, and that they need to repent. However, the fact that I am in the same denomination as some of them does not automatically make me guilty of the same sins, any more than I am guilty of teaching theistic evolution, simply because some in the PCA are doing so. I will write more about Daniel 9 in relationship to Ezekiel 18 later, as it really deserves its own post.
On a more personal note, my family came with me this time (7 people in a small hotel room makes our home seem absolutely humongous now!), and I was shocked to discover that I had more energy every day, not less. It was terrific family time that we had, especially in the pool.