Extra Services?

The Puritans generally rejected extra services of worship besides the Sunday Sabbath services. They lived in a context where the churches in power tended to require lots of extra services. There were feast-days, holy days, saint-days, etc. The Puritans believed that requiring all these extra services bound the conscience to something that was not God’s Word. Their position became clear: only the Sunday services of worship were required by Scripture. However, they did not forbid extra services entirely. WCF 21.5 states that “thanksgivings upon special occasions” are appropriate. The WCF does not specify what those special occasions are. We know from the rest of the standards that none of these extra services can be forced upon the people. However, that is a very different thing from saying that therefore they are not allowed.

If a congregation, therefore, decides that it wants to give thanks to God generally by holding a Thanksgiving service; give thanks to God for the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas; and give thanks to God for Christ’s resurrection at Easter, this does not fall foul of the Regulative Principle, and it falls within the parameters of WCF 21.5. The congregation would then have decided that those are the special occasions on which it wants to give thanks. If someone were to respond by saying “those aren’t special occasions,” I would respond by saying, “who gets to decide what the special occasions are?” Is it not the congregation, led by the session? In my situation, for instance, the congregation is used to having a Thanksgiving service, a Christmas service and an Easter service. No one feels bound in their conscience to go. They go freely. This is very different, obviously, from what the Puritans were facing, in terms of required services.

Now, can we require people to go to extra services? Of course not. That would definitely be a violation of Scripture. Nor could we, hypothetically speaking, discipline anyone who did not come to the special services. They must be kept voluntary. This is the understanding of many Reformed churches through the years. One could not fault a church for holding only to the Sabbath services. However, it seems to go too far to judge churches that have Christmas and Easter services. There seems to be a range here of acceptable practice.

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An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 1 Prayer

I have taken to praying the Psalms in corporate worship, and what I am doing is making the wording corporate, interpreting the Psalm christologically, and seeking to make the Psalm ours. This is my effort at praying Psalm 1:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have revealed to us that we are blessed if we do not walk in the council of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scoffer. Make us instead to delight in your law, that we might meditate on it day and night. Make us to be like trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in their season, never withering, gaining an internal, invisible nourishment so that, in anything that we do for you and for your kingdom, we will prosper. Make us not like the wicked, who have so little weight that the wind can drive them away. Though we feel alone in this, though we see and feel the pressures against righteousness by the world outside, we know, Father, that the whole congregation of the righteous will stand with us. Above all, you stand with us, for you know our path, the end from the beginning. You know that path of wisdom, and you delight to show it to us. You also illuminate for us the path of the wicked, and you show us its end. We praise you that Jesus walked not in the counsel of the wicked, nor did he stand in the way of sinners, nor ever sit in the seat of scoffers. We praise you that He delighted to do your will, that He delighted in your law, that He always meditated on it, that He therefore has become for us the life-giving vine who nourishes our faith always.

A Friendly Introduction to Biblical Literacy

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around here sometimes!)

I’m pleased to be able to share with you a quirky biblical literacy resource that I created this year. Originally commissioned for a women’s Bible study conference last fall, this half-hour talk instructs beginning Bible students in the difference between “doing devotions” and studying a passage, using Isaiah 61 to reinforce my main points.

It’s meant to be a primer, so the content won’t interest most readers of this blog. But if you listen for just a few minutes, you’ll likely think of a few people who would benefit from this kind of friendly instruction. (Of course, if you listen to the whole thing I will be flattered!)

This talk is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I created slides to accompany it, for the sake of visual learners. The talk can be enjoyed profitably just as an audio recording, too. Please pass this link along, as appropriate. Thanks!

Green Baggins Is Going OPC

It is now official. I have been examined and approved by the OPC’s Presbytery of the Midwest for a call from Momence OPC, which is south of Chicago about 35 or 40 miles. The presbytery is an extremely congenial presbytery, full of vanilla presbyterians like myself. I want my friends in the PCA to know that I still love the PCA, and I did not leave primarily for ideological reasons. The main reason was that Momence OPC and I really hit it off, and we appear to be a good fit for each other. I had applied to churches in several NAPARC denominations, but this church is the one that worked out. That being said, I will not particularly miss the progressive wing of the PCA, and I daresay that some of them will not miss me! I will continue, however, to pray for my confessional brothers and sisters in the PCA, that they will not compromise, but will hold fast the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I will continue also to follow the PCA with interest and prayer. I cannot forget a denomination of which I have been a part for 38 years!

The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

An Interesting Argument Against Immersion

Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much). He insisted that “baptizo” means “immerse,” although he goes on to argue that the immersion is secondary, and that washing is primary. For Vos, the immersion is incidental to the meaning of the word. The substance of baptism can, for Vos, be accomplished in another way. But the most fascinating thing about his argument against immersion is his advocation of catholicity (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 5, p. 125):

To what, finally, can one still appeal against the Baptists? To the universal character of Christianity. Christianity is catholic, that is, intended for all times and places. That must come out in its sacraments too. Hence, the signs in these sacraments are such as are to be found everywhere: water, bread, wine-the most common products of nature that can be kept everywhere. But the same thing will also have to apply to their manner of use. Immersion is something that is sometimes feasible in Middle Eastern lands, but then again in many regions, not. If Christianity is thus bound to something like this, then in this respect it is the same as Islam, which obligates all its adherents to a pilgrimage to Mecca. But Islam is then also particularistic; Christianity is universal, catholic, intended for all times, countries, circumstances, and conditions.

I had not thought of using the catholicity of Christianity as an argument against immersion before. So I thought I would throw it out there for the readers. What do you think of this argument?

Old and New Testament Sacraments

One of the most controversial aspects of sacramental theology is the relationship between the Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision (and some would even dispute that they are sacraments!) and the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I am not going to treat this subject exhaustively at all. There are just two points that I wish to make, fueled by Vos’s discussions in volume 5 of Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-104.

The first point that Vos makes is that the Old Testament sacraments are types of Christ, not of the New Testament sacraments. There is, indeed, a correspondence between the two sets of sacraments. However, there is not a typological relationship between the two (p. 104).

The second issue is something that has bothered me for a while. Why is it that the recipients of the Passover have in an important way narrowed (those who can discern the Lord’s body versus all children in the Passover, thus making an age differene), while the recipients of baptism have broadened (all children and believing adults on their conversion, not just the male children)? Of course, it is merely a Baptistic assumption that the New Testament sacraments must be alike in how they work. There are several important differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we will not get into here. But why has the change to New Testament sacraments resulted in a seemingly opposite scope for circumcision giving way to baptism, and Passover giving way to the Lord’s Supper? Vos offers an explanation I have not seen elsewhere (though I would be surprised if this explanation originated with him: anyone know of sources from which this could have come?):

[I]n Israel the sacraments, besides their significance for the covenant of grace, also had a national aspect, from which a difference in practice arose between them and the New Testament sacraments on a few points. For us, one comes to the table of the Lord only after one has learned to discern the body of Christ. In Israel the children also ate the Passover. This was because the Passover together with its covenantal significance had national significance. The same is true for circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is administered to both sexes of the children of believers. In the Old Testament, circumcision was only for infant boys. Indeed, in the national life of Israel only the men counted and represented the women, and this also had to come to light outwardly (p. 103).

There might be some fruitful ground here for answering both the Baptists and the Federal Vision folks, who both have the same error in treating the NT sacraments as working the same way. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, the problem of the FV’ers in their sacramental theology is not that they have over-reacted to Baptistic theology in every respect, but that they have not thrown off the problems of Baptistic thinking enough. It must be born in mind that most FV’ers were Baptists before they became FV.

Do Ruling Elders Represent the Congregation?

There is a very common conception present in churches today that because ruling elders are elected by the congregation that therefore they represent the congregation, and have their authority from the congregation. This is not true. That the ruling elder’s authority comes from God via the ordination process seems clear enough (the congregation does not ordain ruling elders any more than it ordains teaching elders). Geerhardus Vos addresses this question in volume 5 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

He notes that the accountability of ruling elders is not “to their constituents but to God and His Word” (p. 57). He says flat out: “That elders are chosen by the congregation does not mean that they are representatives of the congregation…If the office of ruling elder were in its essence an office of representation of the congregation, then one must say: a ruling elder chosen by an apostle is a contradictory notion” (p. 58). He goes on to say that the method of choosing or electing ruling elders is two-fold: God can choose directly by His apostles, and He can use the election of the congregation (pp. 58-59). This position is buttressed by an even stronger argument: “It is well established that even in electing an apostle the congregation is consulted for its choice” (p. 58). One can cite the replacement of Judas as an example. Yet no one would claim that the authority of the apostle comes from the congregation, even if the church elected Matthias to replace Judas.

At the very least, these considerations prove that the election of ruling elders is a separate issue from their function, and that election of ruling elders does not prove that they represent the congregation. Unfortunately, the idea of ruling elders representing the congregation is a rather deep-seated error in congregations today.

The practical implications of this truth are rather far-reaching, though I am not going to tease them out in this post. My readers can draw conclusions for themselves regarding the mutual relationships of ruling elder to congregation, ruling elder to teaching elder, congregation to pastor, and ruling and teaching elder to presbytery.

The logical conclusion to all of this is that it is much more true to say that the ruling elders represent God to the congregation than that they represent the congregation to God, even though, of course, ruling elders should pray on behalf of the congregation to God. However, this duty of intercession is not unique to the ruling elders at all.

Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

I’m reading the 5th volume of Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics right now, and he has a very interesting analogy for the relationship of the visible aspect to the invisible aspect of the church:

The invisibility of the Church must be further defined: a) It is not ascribed to the Church in an absolute sense, as if the Church raised to its perfection and having reached its goal would still be an invisible entity-that is, something that by its nature cannot be seen. Such a dualism would be completely intolerable. The invisible is oriented toward the visible and vice versa, as the soul to the body and the body to the soul. When the Church is perfect, it will also be entirely visible as well as invisible, and the former will be an adequate manifestation of the latter…Believers do not have a different body than unbelievers. If they did, we could easily distinguish between the two, and the invisible church would coincide with the visible. In this respect, Rome, accordingly, anticipates the heavenly and the perfect as it in other respects repristinates-that is, draws out the old again from the days of the old covenant (pp. 15-16, emphasis added).

Further on, he makes some very important qualifications vis-a-vis the overlap of the visible and the invisible. The analogy given above of the body’s relationship to the soul, after all, could be misleading if not qualified carefully. They are not two separate churches:

If then it is established that one may not identify the invisible church with the visible, the question still remains unanswered: What is the connection between the two? One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if there were two churches. The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but simply the description of one and the same subject from two different sides…The visible thus everywhere presupposes the invisible, rests on it, derives from it is right of existence…Someone has quite rightly observed that although sand is mixed with gold, still the gold is not therefore called gold because of the sand mixed in it but because of its own quality (pp. 18-19).

So, as has been pointed out on this blog before, there are several errors to avoid, and several truths to emphasize. Error 1: the idea that the true church is entirely visible. This is the Roman Catholic error, and the error towards which the Federal Vision tends. Error 2: the idea that the true church is entirely invisible. This is the error of the Anabaptists, as well as some Baptists. Error 3: the idea that there is little to no overlap between the visible and invisible church. This is the error of the Hebrew Roots Movement, and other conspiracy-oriented sects.

Truths to emphasize: 1. There are visible and invisible aspects to the church. 2. These aspects are not separate churches, but have a large amount of overlap. 3. The visible and invisible do not entirely overlap: there are many false sons within her pale, and some true believers outside her administration. 4. As the church matures towards the eschaton, the visible and invisible will approximate each other more and more closely. Eventually there will be a one-to-one correspondence between those in the visible and those in the invisible church, even though there will still be some aspects of the church that will be invisible.

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