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?

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.

A Guest Post on Racism

It is fascinating to me to hear the vastly different perspectives even of non-racist people, which ranges from outrage at the passing of Overture 43 as amended (the outrage is thoroughly non-racist), to folks who think we probably haven’t gone far enough. Here is a voice definitely in between these relatively extreme positions.

A Guest Post from Rev. Billy Boyce

Considerations Regarding Racial Reconciliation

As the PCA takes up the discussion about racial reconciliation this week at General Assembly, the ultimate path to finding accord and compromise is sure to come through personal interaction rather than Internet publication. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a few brief considerations in response to some more recent posts and comments on the subject. I’m grateful to Lane for sharing his space with me and for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion within our denomination.
Given limited time and space, I offer here three considerations for those voting this week at GA:

Consideration #1: The Insufficiency of Institutional Documents

It has been frequently observed that the PCA expressly desired to include all races and ethnicities in worship, as indicated by the founders of the denomination, something we should all applaud. Also, a number of further institutional documents address racial reconciliation and repentance for past sins. According to the institutional record, the PCA looks pretty good regarding racial reconciliation. However, these institutional documents alone are insufficient for judging the record of our denomination. It is true that our institution has expressed the desire to grow in racial and ethnic pluriformity. At the same time, our institution has not lived up to that desire, but has had barriers to the welcoming of others. The documents themselves are insufficient for weighing the existence and effect of these barriers; personal testimony is needed to flesh out the record. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to “be true to what [we] said on paper.”

Consideration #2: The Weight of Personal Testimony and Community Witness
If institutional documents are not enough to assess institutional health, we need to listen to personal testimony. Yet, these testimonies are sometimes disregarded as being merely anecdotal. It is important to state here that there are two types of personal testimony. There is the type of testimony that only represents the individual witness; these testimonies are not enough to develop precedent. However, a second type of testimony exists whereby the witness’s testimony expresses both the individual’s experiences and gives a glimpse into the experiences of a community. These testimonies represent a community of witness and bear much more gravity than mere personal stories. It behooves listeners to discern which type of testimony is offered, and in the case of the PCA’s history of racial reconciliation, the multiple voices coming from across generations and ethnicities are enough to indicate a community of witness. This community of witnesses tells us that we have not lived up to our aspirations—what we have said on paper—and we ought not ignore it. This community testimony offers the PCA two points of witness: 1) the need for the PCA to confess and repent, and 2) the desire to confess and repent! Numerous PCA minorities are willing to participate in the corporate confession and repentance called for in some of the overtures. They offer a profound embodiment of the ideal of corporate repentance by participating in the repentance for sins that directly impacted their forefathers. Those who assert that it is impossible to repent of something that they personally did not do ought to pause and reflect on the willingness of our minority brothers and sisters to confess and repent. After pausing and considering, individuals may disagree. But in the spirit of Christian charity, it behooves everyone to ask, “might I be wrong on this?”

Consideration #3: The Primacy of Theological Faithfulness
In considering the community of witness testifying to the need for corporate repentance and modeling the desire to participate in corporate repentance, presbyters must allow the conversation to remain focused on theological faithfulness. Too often, I have heard presbyters invoke the specter of “political correctness” as the aim of these overtures. This is a harmful temptation, because these overtures aim at a much loftier goal: biblical, theological, ecclesial, Christ-honoring faithfulness. They seek to aid the pursuit of, quoting TE Lance Lewis, “redemptive ethnic unity.” To replace theological categories with mere political posturing is to rip the teeth out of this conversation and reduce it to another partisan squabble. This reduction guts the conversation of its eschatological vision: the ideal of redemptive ethnic unity, which is driven by the commands of Christ and the vision of the New Jerusalem.

These three considerations could be summed up as the encouragement to listen deeply and discerningly, which is itself simply a call to exercise wisdom. Wisdom hears and listens; wisdom is teachable; wisdom craves purity; wisdom longs for the beauty of peace and unity. Listen to those calling for corporate repentance. Listen to those opposing these overtures. Then listen again. May God grant us wisdom as we weigh all of the considerations before us this GA, and may he give us peace.

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.

The Silencing of Naysayers

Hugh McCann linked to an interesting article on what is happening in Kentucky over the gay marriage decision. It apparently didn’t take long for some in the LGBT community deliberately to target Christians for what they believe. The ACLU’s response to the excellent argumentation in favor of Kim Davis’s position is that no one should be held to a different standard, now that gay marriage is the law of the land. Let’s test that response on a different law.

If abortion becoming legal is the law of the land, then should all naysayers against abortion be silenced? Are we requiring people to agree with laws nowadays? There are hundreds, if not thousands of laws that I would disagree with (if I even knew what half of them were: the federal law-code is ridiculously verbose) in this nation. No one has ever tried to silence completely the naysayers against abortion. That was because it was recognized that this is still a matter of free speech.

We need to remember an important distinction in the matter of law: if there is a ruling on the books that homosexuals may get married, then that means that the state cannot prosecute homosexuals who get a marriage license. That ruling cannot be made into a bludgeon to silence all dissent. If agreement with the ruling is the interpretation that the court goes with in the Kentucky case, then the court will make a fundamental error regarding what the law of the land is supposed to do.

Let’s take another example, one less controversial. If I disagree with a speed limit in a particular place, am I required verbally to agree that the speed limit in that zone should be what it is? In the case of a speed limit, the answer is no. I don’t have to agree that this is a good speed limit. But if I speed, then I make myself liable to the law. In the case of SSM, of course, there may quite conceivably come soon a time when we Christians are going to have to disobey laws of the land, because they contradict what God has commanded in His Word.

The ACLU might come back with this argument: “Ah, but Kim Davis is a government employee, and therefore she is required to uphold the law of the land.” To this, the response is quite simple, and two-fold: 1. Although it is now legal in the US to get a marriage license, that is not the same thing as saying that everyone is required to agree with it. 2. Government employees are not required to agree with the law regarding abortion in order to hold a public office. Why should they be required to agree with the SSM ruling in order to hold office? By their argument, the four justices who wrote dissents cannot be allowed to keep their office. If one reads the article, it becomes clear that the lawsuit had nothing to do with a gay couple being unable to get a licence in Kentucky. There were many other options available to them. The application for a marriage license was only sent Kim Davis’s way AFTER they learned of her stance on gay marriage. This is deliberate targeting. The ACLU argument is very weak indeed.

Tim Keller’s Book on Preaching

I was very pleasantly surprised to read Tim Keller’s book on preaching. I was afraid I would encounter a low view of preaching, an antinomian spirit, a denigration of exposition, and an exaltation of things that have no business being in the worship service. I encountered none of these things in this book. Although the book is not perfect, the good definitely outweighs the bad, and by a fair margin.

The good things: 1. He has a very helpful way of connecting the first use of the law to the third (though he does not use these terms). A general movement in the sermon that he recommends goes something like this: the law is what you are supposed to do, but you can’t do it. Jesus has done it, so if you are united to Him by faith, here is how you can do it, by growing in your faith.

2. In general, he uses excellent sources, and usually the best, to bolster his points. You see names like Ferguson, Lloyd-Jones, Clowney, Carson, Spurgeon, Old, Perkins, Dabney, Calvin, Edwards, and Packer.

3. In an age when preaching is falling on hard times, Keller is definitely going counter-cultural here. In fact, his thoughts on culture are very helpful at places. He has a balance between acknowledging what can be a point of contact, while using that same point of contact to confront the culture at various points, including both unconsciously held narratives as well as explicit idolatries.

4. He advocates a mostly responsible redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture (see my one caveat below) that sees Jesus in the Old Testament.

5. The gospel is for Christians and unbelievers. He has a robust view of the possible hearers, and a helpful taxonomy of various spiritual places that hearers could be.

6. There are many insights that are eminently quotable. Here are a few: “[Secular people]…won’t even consider real Christianity unless they see it is not identical to moralism” (p. 62). “We need not only the Bible’s prescription to our problems but also its diagnosis of them” (p. 97). “[I]magine that the Bible is not the product of any one human culture or set of authors but is a revelation from God himself. If that were the case, then it would have to offend every person’s cultural sensibilities somewhere. No matter who you are, you inhabit an imperfect culture that shapes your beliefs, and the Bible-if it were authoritative revelation from God-would then have to be outrageous to you at some place. Since that is the case, it is no argument against the Bible to say, ‘It offends me at this point.’ That is precisely what you should expect” (pp. 113-114). It should be pointed out that Keller is not advocating a low view of Scriptural authority here. Rather, he assumes a high view.

There are many other good things about this book. I have not been exhaustive, but only representative.

There are a few caveats that I feel are necessary to point out. First, although Keller does have what seems to me a responsible redemptive-historical hermeneutic that sees Christ in the Old Testament, he also tries to use a bit of the Christotelic hermeneutic, compliments of Tremper Longman (pp. 86-87). I used to think that a second Christotelic re-reading was fully compatible with Luke 24 and John 5. I no longer think that is true. Yes, the New Testament does help us understand the Old Testament. The question is whether the NT sheds light on what is actually there in the OT, or whether the NT changes the meaning of the OT. It is not entirely clear to me which of these positions Keller would ultimately assume, although the majority of his argumentation favors the former, more orthodox position.

Secondly, Keller references Krister Stendahl’s article “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” which was a seminal article in the formation of the New Perspective on Paul. While it is possible that there is some good in that article, it would have been nice to see Keller offer a caveat, so that people would not think that Keller is endorsing the NPP. He does the same with N.T. Wright in at least one place.

Thirdly, there are a few false dichotomies he uses that I do not think are terribly useful. On pages 157ff., he advocates (rightly) that the human being is a whole being, body and soul, mind and heart, and that we should not separate these things. The heart can think, biblically speaking. It is not just emotions (p. 158). He advocates preaching to the heart (again, how could one disagree?). The quibble I have has to do with how Keller sees truth, propositions, and the mind. It seems to me that Keller does not really see the truth by itself as carrying the weight of conviction that Scripture says it carries. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. Jesus did not say “the truth dynamically spoken.” Keller agrees with Edwards that there is no opposition between mind and heart (p. 161). Well and good, except that he also advocates an essential element of making the truth “gripping and real to the heart” (p. 160). He is not excluding rational argument and doctrine (p. 162 makes this plain). Is there room in Keller’s theology for God using a dry-as-dust-but-orthodox sermon to transform someone’s life permanently? Another example of what I am asking is on page 169, where Keller (ironically) uses a proposition to denigrate propositions. He argues that the imagination is more affected by images than by propositions. Perhaps, if one has a low and narrow view of propositions. But why must propositions be dull and unimaginative? Why can’t propositions use imagery, metaphor, word-pictures? He brings in the example of Genesis 4:7, and the imagery of sin being like an animal crouching at the door. He argues that this imagery conveys more information “than a mere proposition could do.” But if you look at his own statement, it is a proposition. Furthermore, so is Genesis 4:7! It is a proposition that sin is like an animal crouching at the door. It seems to me that Keller simply has a narrow view of what propositions can do, as if they can only be premises or conclusions in a formal logical argument. Related to this is something that is simply false on page 287, footnote 4, where Keller agrees with Smith in critiquing what he calls “an approach to ministry that is too rationalistic and focused on information transfer and the transmission of right doctrine and beliefs. His response is that we change not by changing what we think as much as by changing what we worship-what we love and fill our imaginations with.” This is a false dichotomy. It is difficult to square this kind of thinking with Romans 12:1-2, where we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is doctrine really this boring?

Fourthly, I do not share his view of the inadvisability of preaching through entire books to a mobile city church. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia has just as mobile a congregation as Redeemer does, and yet they preach straight through book after book of the Bible. It doesn’t seem to have hurt Tenth very much, to put it mildly.

I am not sure what I think of his three tiers of communication related to the gospel (the introduction, pp. 1-7). Initially when I read it, I thought that it makes sense on one level. However, what Keller did not make clear is what impact this would have on his view of, say, women in ministry. Keller is in favor of the dictum that a woman can do anything in worship that a non-ordained man can do. But if this is true, and a non-ordained man can preach, then may a woman do so? This certainly would seem to fall foul of 1 Timothy 2.

Although I have had to explain at somewhat greater length my quibbles with Keller’s book, I do not want the readers to get the impression that the quibbles outweigh the good things. Quibbles always take longer to explain. Furthermore, my list of good things is only representative, whereas the quibbles are pretty much exhaustive. This is still an excellent book on preaching, and I would recommend it to anyone who is committed (as everyone should be with any theologian, including this blogger!) to eating the meat and spitting out the bones.

Quote of the Week

Some of my readers might be wondering whether I dropped off the face of the earth. Our family was sick for a month and a half. It was the single worst respiratory disease I have ever had, and my poor wife Sarah was in constant pain during all that time. We believe there is a mold issue in our house. Fortunately, we also believe that it can be fixed relatively quickly. Our church has been marvelous about fixing the manse quickly and efficiently, and we feel very loved.

The quote of the week (month?) comes from Joseph Caryl, his commentary on Job, volume 3, p. 445, commenting on Job 10:3:

Many are troubled at small defects in the outward man: Few are troubled at the greatest deformities of their inner man; they call for no repairs, for no fresh colours to be laid on there; many buy artificiall beauty to supply the defects of naturall, who never had a thought of buying (without money) spirituall beauty to supply the defects of supernaturall. The crookednesse and distortions, the blacknesse and uncomelinesse of the soul are most deplorable, yet are they little deplored; we are called every day to mend and cure them, we are told where and how we may have all set right, and made fair again, and yet the most stirre not, or not to purpose. God will not know any body at the last day, unlesse his souls be mended by grace, and some do so mend their bodies by art, that God will not know their souls at that day. Depart from me, I know you not (will be all their entertainment) ye have mended your bodies till ye have mar’d your souls (spelling and punctuation original).

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many more Puritan quotes so directly applicable to modern culture.

What Are You Willing to Give Up?

Today’s Supreme Court ruling federally legalizes same-sex “marriage.” It seems obvious to me that we need to prepare our people for persecution, while simultaneously preparing them to speak lovingly, yet truthfully, to the LGBT community. This will not be an easy road. What are we willing to give up? For this decision constitutes America’s attempt to re-define God’s own creation ordinance. This will have massive ramifications that we can only barely glimpse at the moment.

The somewhat provocative title of this post should not be seen as a call to emotional hysteria. All too often, the conversation is characterized by shrill voices on both sides of the debate, thus creating a climate where no one can listen. Evangelicals are rank with fear. Why? And what kind of fear is it? I think we fear to lose the comfortable liberty we have had for such a long time. We fear to lose what is in our bank account. We fear social ostracism. In other words, we fear man, not God. On the other side, we see the LGBT community using emotionally charged words to shout down the opposition. The words “bigot,” “hate-speech,” and “homophobic” are thrown at anyone who does not agree with their agenda. There is no communication going on, only a lot of shouting. The importance of books like Rosaria Butterfield’s masterpiece can hardly be underestimated at a time like this, because no one could possibly accuse such an ex-Lesbian of hate-speech, and yet she also speaks the truth. More books like this need to be written. The most thorough treatment of the exegetical issues is undoubtedly Gagnon’s book. For a smaller, more accessible book (although Gagnon is not too difficult to read), there is now Kevin Deyoung’s book. Butterfield’s book, though, is the most important of the three.

The accelerated pace of the sea-change going on now in America requires some comment. I am constantly hearing of people who think that “such and such thing cannot possibly happen in America.” I am not sure that anything is off the table anymore. The changes are easily fast enough now to make us dizzy. I am preaching this Sunday on Revelation 11. A more timely text could hardly be imagined. The two witnesses I take to be the church defined as a legally valid testimony on Old Testament Deuteronomic terms. The persecution rises against them until the church appears dead. The world rejoices. God will then vindicate those witnesses by raising them from the dead. I know that every era of church history has had people saying that the end is upon us. As a good Amillenial, I believe that they are all correct. The end-times are upon us. As Hebrews 1 says, we are in the last days now (“in these last days God has spoken to us in (or by) His Son”). The American church is about to be seriously pruned. We are about to look a lot more like the house churches in China. Anyone got some nice spacious basements?

What are we willing to give up? We are going to have to be willing to give up forever the idea of being “relevant,” at least in the way that many people mean the term. We cannot adopt the world’s way of doing things. Our way of being truly relevant is to speak the truth to people who do not want to hear what we have to say. We need to be willing to give up prestige, money, land, freedom, and life itself. They will be gone in a very short period of time. Our families will be torn apart. The government will take away everything we value. Welcome to the brave new world.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, Satan has been using the carrot to lure people away from the true church, and away from the means of grace. Satan is changing tools. He will now use the stick. Probably very few of us would have recognized ahead of time that the homosexual marriage issue would be the issue by which this change would take place.

As I was talking with one of my elders this morning about these things, it struck me forcefully that we need to pray for our dispensational Pre-millenial brothers. What is going to happen will knock their theology for a loop. They believe that they are going to escape the tribulation by means of the Rapture. Revelation 11 says otherwise. Even if verse 12 is talking about a Rapture, it clearly does NOT occur until after the death and resurrection experience of verses 7-11. At that time, those brothers will be wondering if God is incorrect in what He said, and what else God might be wrong about. They might very well forget to ask the question about whether they understand the text correctly or not. We need to pray for them that their faith will hold firm.

Do not fear what is about to happen. Above all, do not get hysterical, as if God’s grip on the world has somehow slipped. Instead, rejoice that the end is near. Count it pure joy when you experience trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith will produce perseverance. Know that the poor, dead-looking church over which the world will gloat will one day rise up again, in spite of the world. The world will then gape in dread and awe of the church as God resurrects it. SCOTUS may think itself the supreme court of the land. Boy, are they in for a shock!

What Is Racism?

Racism is a very serious thing these days. We hear of race riots in America, just when some people thought we had moved past all that. There are blatant forms of racism, and more subtle forms of it. But before we get into that, we need to ask an important question: why is a white guy like me talking about this subject, and what right do I have to do so? There are two ways of answering that question. The first is that racism can be just as much against white people (theoretically) as against any other race. We haven’t seen much of that in America. But it does exist, especially in more subtle forms of racism, which we can get into below. The second part of the answer is that a white person can and should care about what happens to other parts of the human race. Just because I have not been a victim of racism doesn’t mean I can’t say anything about it. I haven’t been a victim of mugging either, but I presume that would not preclude me from saying something about it. I do have an imagination, and I hope all my readers do, too.

The biblical truth is that all humans come from Adam, and all humans come from Noah. As C.S. Lewis might say, that is grand enough to exalt any person, and humble enough to remind anyone that we are but dust. One of the most important features of racism, then, is either a partial or full denial of this fundamental truth. This goes a long way towards a definition. If we are not all from the same origin, then we have room to claim that one race is superior to another. This is one of the biggest problems with the theory of multiple origins of the human race. Evolution and the denial of the historical Adam will have racism as its intended or unintended consequence. Ben Stein showed this quite eloquently in his movie “Expelled,” which you should see if you haven’t yet. Since we are all from one origin, then no one part of the human race can lift itself above any other part of the human race. We are all one human race. The image of God is stamped on every human being. That image of God commands respect and dignity. To denigrate an image bearer, making the person somehow less than human, is therefore a direct attack on God.

There are, however, more subtle forms of racism, and here I am going to get very politically incorrect (as if my statements on evolution were not!). I believe that affirmative action is racist. When it comes to college scholarship and such things, I believe that those who hand them out should be color-blind. However, making a certain quota of African-Americans, or any other minority, is basically saying to them, “You can’t make it without our help.” I know very well the counter-argument: African-Americans have not had access to the kind of schooling that white children have had. But I would remind people of the arguments of Bill Cosby, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams (especially the first named): anyone working hard can overcome any obstacles. They have all argued, in one way or another, that affirmative action and the welfare state have wreaked havoc on the black community. The disintegration of the family is another serious factor. These things are harming African-Americans today more than other factors, I believe. The Japanese faced incredible prejudice after World War II. So did the Germans and Italians. They didn’t have access to the best schools either. What did they do? They worked hard and overcame the obstacles. Many African-Americans have done the same. But not all of them have. Many believe that they are owed something for what they or their ancestors suffered. What do I owe them? I owe them the respect and dignity that is owed to all human beings. I do not owe them for what my ancestors may or may not have done. Ezekiel 18 is very important here (I will be writing a post on the relationship of Daniel 9 and Ezekiel 18 at some point in the near future, Lord-willing). The fathers are not responsible for the guilt of the son, nor is the son responsible for the guilt of the father. Acknowledging the sin that someone else has done is one thing, and is very understandable (and can certainly help in the case of race relations today). But that does not mean the same thing as what some seem to be claiming: that there is actual ontological transference of guilt. I have had it said to me that I am guilty of racism simply because I am white. Folks, that is just as much the sin of racism as saying that an African-American is not human because he is black.

What difference does the amount of melanin in the skin make? This is simply micro-evolution. The African-American has more melanin in the skin. Over many generations in the incredibly hot climates of Africa, the people developed darker and darker skin in order to adapt to their surroundings. This is the beauty of the adaptive characteristics of humans. The flip side of this adaptive characteristic is the very pale complexion of Norwegians. They adapted to their frigid climate in the opposite way. If lots of Africans migrated to Norway, over a period of a few hundred years, their skin would lighten quite noticeably. Similarly, if the Norwegian migrated to Africa, his skin would darken quite a bit just in his own lifetime. It is quite silly to make skin color determinative of worth.

The much more difficult question is that of different cultures. It is here, for instance, that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X differed. King was in the south and argued for racial integration and desegregation. The south was segregated (and still is in some ways, though not in transportation and education, the issues that were uppermost in the Civil Rights era). Racism showed itself in exclusion. In the north, however, where Malcolm X mostly lived and spoke, there was no segregation. More subtle attitudes were the problem. This is why (so argues James Cone) King argues for desegregation while Malcolm X argues for segregation. They had different contexts. Which of them is correct? This is not an easy question to answer. There is nothing wrong with desiring to keep a particular culture stable (anyone seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?). Any minority group that comes to America usually desires to keep its traditions alive and well, and those traditions can come into jeopardy when full integration is encouraged. On the other hand, segregation can result in exclusion, which is not healthy. The influence of other cultures is usually salutary, if for no other reason than that one knows one’s own culture better and values it more when compared to other cultures. This comparison itself has pitfalls, of course, because non-moral cultural issues can become a subtle basis for racism quite easily when non-moral issues become “better” or “worse” than what other cultures have.

To conclude, racism as usually understood means a person believes his race is better than another race. This can be blatant, or it can be subtle. We need to be very careful about how we think through these issues, and we need to do a lot of listening. I learned a lot, for instance, about ministering in an African-American context this year at General Assembly by listening to my African-American brothers. Avoiding racism is actually pretty simple: treat each person you meet as an image-bearer of God. That person deserves dignity and respect.

General Assembly Roundup

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.

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