Reply to Dave Armstrong

by Ron Henzel

It is always a good thing when we stand corrected and are able to muster the humility and courage to admit that the correction is right. It is always a commendable thing when anyone is able to not only properly receive such correction, but to do so in a public forum where egos are vulnerable and—especially in these days—frequently subjected to merciless attacks. The value of such acts should not be minimized.

It is in this spirit that I gratefully acknowledge Dave Armstrong’s retraction of his assertion that “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” I commend him for changing the title to an unambiguous “John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon,” and I thank him not only for citing my blog post of May 2 as providing the reason that persuaded him to make that change, but for actually thanking me for that input.

I have been in Dave’s place before. I have made glaring misstatements of fact that others have called me on, and I have had to publicly retract them. I know how that felt for me, and that is why my admiration for his concession precludes any victory dance on my part. The victory here is his, not mine.

Having said that, however, I wish I could also say that this is where the whole matter was put to rest. If it were up to me, that is what would have happened. In such a circumstance, this blog post would now be ending with this paragraph, and I would be moving on to other things. But it seems that Dave cannot let the matter rest where I think it should.

He referred to “some significant ways in which [I] misrepresented [his] original argument,” and said, “In conclusion, I wish to clarify a few secondary things that Ron got wrong about my view: even my mistaken one.” (Italics his.)

So apparently, even when I’m right, I’m far more wrong than I am right, and Dave thinks I’m so significantly wrong about several things that he has gone to some trouble to call them to everyone’s attention. Since these all constitute objections to my previous post, I will enumerate them as such—at least the ones I think are worth mentioning, which is the majority of them—and respond to them in order.

Objection #1: I Exaggerated What Dave Actually Argued.

This objection comes in response to my claim that apostrophes can be distinguished from prayers with relative ease by the fact that the latter include requests and the former do not, which makes it a bit confusing, since that makes the exaggeration about something I wrote rather than something he argued.

In making this objection, Dave first appeals to the fact that that Calvin’s use of the word “appeal,” makes it sound like he’s offering a prayer. (Note: in case anyone wonders, the original Latin text of the sentence in view here reads: “O Philippe Melanchthon! Te enim appello, qui apud Deum cum Christo vivis, nosque illic exspectas, donec tecum in beatam quietem colligamur.”­­ Corpus Reformatorum 37 [Braunschweig, Germany: C.A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1870], col. 461. “I appeal” is a perfectly good translation of appello.) He goes on further to cite Matt. 26:53, where Jesus speaks of praying to His Father and the RSV and ESV both translate παρακαλέω (parakaleō) as “appeal.” Thus his point here seems to be that calling Calvin’s paragraph a “prayer” was not unwarranted given Calvin’s wording.

Again, the problem with this objection is that Dave has not shown how I have exaggerated anything he argued. If anything, he is simply reiterated my summary of his thesis, which was effectively summarized in the (former) title of his blog post: “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon.” How I exaggerated the meaning of this statement eludes me.

On the other hand, it seems that what Dave’s new point here actually argues is that I have exaggerated how easy it is to distinguish an apostrophe from a prayer. This would explain why he submits as evidence the use of the word “appeal” in other prayer-contexts.

Also, in apparent support of his “exaggeration” objection: based on comments he made after his original post, Dave’s revised post now argues that he “was not dogmatically declaring that it was necessarily prayer, and could see other possibilities.” But that does not change the fact that he was essentially arguing that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon, as the title of his post trumpeted across the Web. The word “possibly” was not in that title.

In any case, to the charge(s) inherent in this objection I confidently plead, “Not guilty.”

The word “appeal” does not automatically denote a request, and Calvin made the exact nature of his particular appeal clear in his subsequent text: viz., he was appealing not for present help from Melanchthon, but to Melanchthon’s prior example in dealing with the apostate Staphylus and his encouraging words to Calvin during his controversy with Nicolas Le Coq. This is consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition 3a for the word “appeal:” “an application (as to a recognized authority) for corroboration, vindication, or decision.” In this case Calvin was making application to statements that Melanchthon had made while alive which corroborated what Calvin was now saying.

And even if Dave was being something less than dogmatic in his declaration (whatever that may mean), he was still declaring that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon.

Objection #2: I Accused Dave of Saying That Calvin Engaged in a Completely Roman Catholic Practice.

As Dave himself put it (the italics and bold are his):

Too often, Protestant debaters or apologists assume without proof (i.e., begging the question) that the Catholic must be equating some noted Protestant similarity of belief or practice with the Catholic counterpart, as if the two are absolutely identical in all respects and aspects.

This is a classic case of this error.

This is in response to what I wrote here:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

The first thing I would point out in response is that I anticipated this objection, and it was because I did that I included my parenthetical qualification: “perhaps a Protestant version of.” This was my way of allowing for the possibility that Dave was not saying that Calvin’s alleged prayer was “absolutely identical in all respects and aspects” to the Roman Catholic intercession of the saints. I thought the qualification was sufficient to head off this objection, but apparently not. And yet, why not? I would think it is obvious that “a Protestant version of” a Roman Catholic teaching would be assumed to differ in at least some respect or aspect from the aforementioned Roman Catholic teaching. After all, versions are, by definition, forms or variants that automatically differ from each other at various points.

Therefore, I once again enter a plea of “Not guilty.” I was not saying what he was accusing me of saying about him.

Objection #3: I Contradicted Myself When I Characterized His Quote from Calvin as Being Made with “Cynical Brevity.”

In order to understand this objection, one has to understand how Dave has chosen to represent my assertion that his allegation that Calvin prayed to Melanchthon is comparable, at least on some level, to Roman Catholicism’s intercession of the saints. He initially characterizes my remark as a reference to “an imaginary argument that I never made,” later implying that I viewed it as “an elaborate argument of the intercession of saints.” He further declares that this “elaborate argument” is a “fanciful myth” that I “dreamt up.”

Now, if anyone reading my previous post is confused because they can’t find the place where I posited that Dave had made any kind of “elaborate argument” in his original post, the reason for that is simple: I never said any such thing. In fact, as Dave himself points out, I followed up my “cynical brevity remark” by noting that his post essentially consisted of his Calvin quote “with no substantive comment.” Where is there room for an “elaborate argument” in a post that has “no substantive comment?” I never said there was, and so to this off-the-wall charge I also plead, “Not guilty.”

Objection #4: It Was Unfair of Me to Suggest that He Should Have Checked His Source’s Introduction Before Making His Allegation.

Now, Dave did not actually use the word “unfair,” but I don’t believe there is any other way to understand point when he feels compelled to defend himself by writing that “it was not obvious that Reid would have mentioned this one citation in the Introduction.” And, of course, he’s right about that: it’s not obvious. You never know what an introduction is going to cover and what it is going to omit. But how does that excuse his failure to check it?

Besides, not only did Dave miss the fact that Reid called his quote from Calvin an “apostrophe,” he also missed Beveridge calling it the same thing in his index to the other source that he cited. Checking introductions and indices is one of the things that separates thorough research from sloppy research.

“Not guilty!”

Objection #5: I Committed a Straw Man Fallacy by Critiquing the Doctrine of the Intercession of the Saints.

This little pearl of rhetoric deserves a full citation:

Ron goes on to an extended exposition / critique of the full Catholic notion of intercession of saints. But since I never claimed that Calvin engaged in that, all of it is an extended version of the straw man fallacy; perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute.

[Italics and URL link his.]

I would hardly characterize what I wrote about the intercession of the saints either “an extended exposition” or a “critique.” I only mentioned the term three times.

In my first reference to it I wrote:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

Here I simply defined it; I did not at all expound on it (let alone extensively expound on it) or critique it.

In my second reference to it I wrote:

In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” …and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” …

There is more, but it’s all from Calvin, not from me. It includes no exposition, but only critique, and I did not include it in order to make a case against the intercession of the saints, but simply to show the absurdity of saying that Calvin would have prayed to a dead person.

In my third and final reference to it I wrote:

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

Again, here one finds neither extended exposition nor critique of the intercession of the saints, but simply a reference to its purpose. For Dave to object that he himself never equated what Calvin did to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints is a red herring. The doctrine in view here is flawlessly summarized as the Roman Catholic church’s teaching that Christians should pray to dead saints so that they might intercede on their behalf. In the church’s own words:

Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

[Catechism of the Catholic Church §2683, (New York, NY, USA: Doubleday, 1997), 707.]

So in point of fact, instead of referring to “the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints,” I could have simply written, “the whole purpose of the church’s teaching about praying to dead saints,” and it would have meant precisely the same thing. There was no need to explore the details of the doctrine, and I did not explore them. Its purpose is that the saints pass our requests on to (i.e., intercede for us before) God.

An extended exposition is by definition a discourse, and I gave no such thing. I merely gave a simple, two-point definition. And while I did pass on some very select details of Calvin’s critique of the doctrine in question, it was (a) not mine, (b) hardly a full-blown critique, and (c) only for the purpose of establishing Calvin’s position.

“Not guilty!”

Summary Judgment

I have been accused of exaggeration, misrepresentation, self-contradiction, imposing an unfair requirement, and committing an informal (straw man) fallacy. I believe that my replies to each of these objections has demonstrated the same pattern that I noted in the title of my previous post: “jumping the gun.” Each objection is a shoot-from-the-hip overreaction to a cursory reading of what I wrote. He is simply treating me the way he originally treated Calvin.

Granted, Calvin’s prose in the article Dave cited is rather involved. It requires that the meaning of his sentences and paragraphs be assembled from his broader context. Thus it rewards thorough, careful reading while penalizing any “parachute drop” method that presumes to understand isolated statements. And that’s exactly where I think Dave went wrong from the outset of his original post. If one cannot exercise the care requisite for plodding through the writings of 16th century authors (and Calvin is among the more lucid of them), one has no business commenting on them.

“No; I Pray Thee, Speak in Sober Judgment.”

Thus said Claudio to Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 171, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, eds., [New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911], 136).

No doubt most of us know that the word “pray” can refer to a question, request, or plea made by any given person to any other given person. It does not have to be a question, request, or plea addressed to God. (Although according to the Oxford English Dictionary, such usage is now rare. See its definition 2.)  And most of us also know how to distinguish the horizontal, human-to-human prayer from the vertical human-to-God prayer in everyday speech. As someone once spoofed, it’s not rocket surgery.

And so with all due respect, I have to say if there is ever a point in Dave’s rebuttal where he seems to be making much ado about nothing, it comes when he launches into his (according to Microsoft Word) 1,054-word critique of “the typical Protestant conception of the word prayer” (italics his). I shall do my best to charitably summarize it as follows:

  1. Dave asserts that “confusion” has been generated by the fact that Protestants typically limit the concept of prayer to petitions and intercessions made to God.
  2. Dave then asserts that Roman Catholics are justified in expanding the definition of prayer to include dead saints because not all prayer must be addressed to God.
  3. Dave further expands the definition of prayer to include “something as simple as communication.”
  4. So Dave concludes that “when I stated in my title that Calvin ‘prayed to Melanchthon’ all it had to mean was that he communicated with him. Period! He could have said, “Hi Phil! Wish I were with ya. I miss all our old Lutheran vs. Reformed fights . . .” and that could be called a “prayer” in this larger meaning of the term. It’s that simple.
  5. Not content with his own conclusion, Dave feels the need to cite an online dictionary which confirms that “prayer” can refer to requests made to human beings, as well as nine biblical examples designed to show the same thing (Isa 5:3; Mk 5:23; Lk 14:18-19 (twice); Acts 8:34; 24:4; 27:34; 2 Cor 5:20; Lk 16:27—the first from the RSV, the rest from the KJV). The New Testament examples of these are in turn compared to three references (Jn 14:16; 16:26; 17:9) that establish that (at least in the case of the New Testament) the same word that applies to prayer to God and also apply to requests to men.

Now this is truly an elaborate argument, especially as we see how it unfolds! I will not take as long in replying to it as Dave took in making it.

Turning this into a semantic issue is a red herring. Even so, regarding the semantics:

  1. The meaning of “prayer” depends on the context in which it is used, not on whether one is assuming an allegedly “Protestant” or “Roman Catholic” meaning of the term. (Though perhaps someday Dave will share the raw data on which he bases his thesis that a “typical Protestant” doesn’t use the word “pray” to refer to human-to-human requests.)
  2. The precise meaning of the original title of Dave’s post is not ambiguous. No verbal can of worms was opened at any time to cause “confusion” among Protestants readers. Praying to the dead is naturally understood as a living human praying to a dead human. The example of the dead Rich Man pleading with the dead Abraham is not relevant to this discussion.
  3. It is ironic that after defending his original error that Calvin was praying to Melanchthon on the basis of the word “appeal,” since he obviously mistook his appeal to Melanchthon’s writings as an appeal for something from him (he said it seemed to imply “some sort of petition”), that Dave is now strenuously arguing that a prayer does not have to include a petition, and that all his previous title “had to mean” was that Calvin “communicated” with Melanchthon. (“All it had to mean?” Notice how these words skirt the issue of what he actually meant!) So what he previously granted with his right hand (that it looked like a petition and therefore a prayer) he has removed with his left (it didn’t have to be a petition to be a prayer).
  4. Even according to the dictionary definitions Dave has supplied, prayer always involves requesting or asking for something. A specific prayer can include other things, but even in the Lord’s prayer, everything after “Hallowed be Thy Name” is a request for something specific.

The bottom line here is that now that Dave has conceded that he was wrong for accusing Calvin of praying to Melanchthon, not only does it strain credulity for him to now assert that he was not talking accusing Calvin of something similar to the intercession of the saints, it is utterly beside the point. He accused Calvin of praying to the dead Melanchthon, and he admits to being wrong about that. Now he wants to deny that such an accusation is sufficiently equivalent to saying Calvin was petitioning Melanchthon and seeking his intercession, but he’s wrong about that, too.

So Is the Intercession of the Saints Really Irrelevant?

Once Dave finished responding to my post, he addressed a response I gave in the comments following my post. I was replying to a reader who asked about my view of the communion of saints, and I indicated that the Reformed teaching on this subject certainly includes spiritual communion between believers on earth and in heaven, but (quoting from volume 4 of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics) I stressed that this does not include praying to believers in heaven, since that would be impossible. After quoting Bavinck, I wrote the following:

Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

Dave’s response to my post came the next day (about four and a half hours prior to his retraction), and the first thing he homed in on was this paragraph from my comment. He quoted the first sentence of it back to me and then wrote:

Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Samuel appear to Saul and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent THEM from “communicating with the living.”

Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

[Note: this version is slightly edited to include a correction to a typographical error that Dave supplied in a follow-up comment.]

I had to ask a question at this point: why would someone committed to Roman Catholic doctrine be so quick to challenge the assertion that the dead cannot hear the prayers of the living? If the intercession of the saints is “perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute” (emphasis Dave’s), then why is it that the first thing he did was attempt to provide counterexamples of this particular point from Scripture? Is there some other Roman Catholic doctrine that requires that the living be able to communicate with the dead?

No. Roman Catholicism is just as much opposed to séances and other forms of conjuring up the dead as are Protestants (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §2117, ibid. 570). There is no reason to cite these counterexamples other than to defend the doctrine of the intercession of the saints. And yet if that was not the issue to begin with, why did Dave choose that as his first field of battle?

The only answer can be that at that point in time, four hours prior to his retraction, that was what he believed to be at stake here because that was his motivation for writing his hit-piece on Calvin to begin with. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Only after Dave realized that his original position (that Calvin had prayed to Melanchthon) was untenable did he seek to deny the implicit premise of that original post (that Calvin’s “prayer” constituted a practical endorsement of the intercession of the saints) in order to salvage whatever remaining coherence for that post that he could. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed.

So What About Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, etc.?

The most obvious problem with Dave’s counterexamples is that none of them are examples of prayer to the dead. That’s what this has been about from the moment he gave the title “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon” to his original post.

Now, I anticipate that Dave may object that he provided his counterexamples not as specimens of prayer, but in response to my comment that physical death is a “dividing wall” that prevents the dead from communicating with the living. But such an objection depends on an obfuscation designed to confuse the occasion of Dave’s counterexamples with the contextual reason for them. The occasion was my remark; the reason was that he was defending praying to dead saints.

I can hardly believe that I feel compelled to say this to literate people who are familiar with the Transfiguration account, but it is more than obvious that the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a miraculous event (Matt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36), and that miraculous events are, by definition, exceptions to natural norms. There is nothing in the Synoptic accounts to suggest that either of these prophets from heaven were even aware of the presence of Peter, James, and John while on the mount with Jesus, much less that they regularly heard the prayers of those living on earth.

As for Saul consulting with the medium from En-dor (1 Sam 28:7-20) in violation of the same Mosaic laws (Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt 18:10-12) that he was supposedly enforcing (1 Sam 28:9): it is obvious from the text that the medium was shocked that she had actually brought up a spirit (28:12), and so this is another miraculous account, similar to the Transfiguration event, in which God overrode the normal order for His purposes. Outside of such divine intervention, the Lord Himself forbade attempts to communicate with the dead (cf. previous references in Lev and Dt).

Meanwhile, Dave’s counterexample of the two witnesses in Rev 11:3-12 is purely speculative. They are introduced suddenly and prophesy for 1,260 days (Rev 11:3) during which time they work miracles of judgment (11:5-6) until they are killed by “the beast from the bottomless pit” and their bodies lie in public as the world celebrates (11:7-10). Then God resurrects them and they ascend into heaven (11:11-12). None of this provides support for the practice of praying to dead saints.

The Biblical Teaching

Not only is there no reference anywhere in Scripture to praying to the dead, let alone authorizing it, but Scripture contains clear and repeated declarations that a dead person is “cut off” from “the earth” (Ex 9:15), from “among his people,” (Ex 31:14), and from “the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; Jer 11:9), and no longer shares any knowledge with those who remain in this “under the sun” plane of existence:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun….for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

[Ecc 9:5-6, 10b, ESV]

When a man dies, he loses all contact with the world of the living: “His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not,” (Job 14:21, ESV). He is no longer aware of the things that happen to his people or his home (2 Ki 22:20) because the dead dwell in “the land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88:11-12).

Texts such as these demonstrate the futility of praying to the dead, but other texts demonstrate its presumptuousness. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Ti 2:5, ESV). No one other than the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate can intercede on our behalf before God. It is foolish to pray to any dead saint, because “No one comes to the Father except through” Christ (Jn 14:6, ESV), and “since he always lives to make intercession for” us (Heb 7:25, ESV).

We have many commands and directions concerning prayer in Scripture. None of them direct us to pray to another human being, much less to a dead human being, even when premised on the notion that we are simply asking such departed people to pray for us, as if they could even hear us, when in fact they cannot.

Advertisements

On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe

by Ron Henzel

In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the Achaeans weep over the corpse of Patroclus, the beloved comrade-in-arms of Achilles, who had been killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles is particularly distraught, since he had promised Patroclus’s father, Menoetius, that he would bring him back home safely. In his grief he addresses the dead Patroclus, promising him vengeance.

So then, Patroclus, since I too am going below, but after you, I shall not hold your funeral till I have brought back here the armour and the head of Hector.

[Iliad 18.330, E.V. Rieu, translator, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1950; 1981), 345.]

Although The Iliad is filled with the supernatural, the question of whether Patroclus could actually hear Achilles’ promise does not come up. There’s a good reason for that: Achilles was employing a rhetorical device for the benefit of the living who overheard him; he was not trying to communicate with Patroclus.

Toward the end of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and company had just departed, leaving Marc Antony alone with the dead body of Julius Caesar.

Antony addresses the corpse,

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! / Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times. / Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

[William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 965.]

His soliloquy goes on for another 17 lines, speaking to the dead Caesar. He pronounces curses on his murderers and predicts that Caesar’s spirit will return to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” but there is no reason to assume that Antony believes that Caesar can actually hear him.

A Manner of Speaking

When people try to communicate with the dead, we call it “necromancy.” That is not what is going on in these two scenes from our Western literary heritage. Rather, these are two examples, widely acknowledged in literary circles, of the rhetorical device known as “apostrophe” (yes, it’s spelled and pronounced the same as the punctuation mark). Apostrophe occurs when someone speaks to a person who is absent as though that person were present, and it occurs throughout ancient, medieval, and modern literature. We also find it in Scripture. When King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV), he was engaging in grief-stricken apostrophe.

With apostrophe, the addressee does not have to be dead, nor does it even need to be a person. It simply needs to be something that is not actually present to the speaker—such as, for example, death itself, as when John Donne wrote “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” It is even at work when the speaker mistakenly believes that the addressee is absent.  So when Juliet, thinking her lover was absent, cried out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” she was employing apostrophe.

By its very nature, apostrophe obviously does not intend actual communication between the speaker and addressee.  Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Simple, right?

At Least, So You Would Think

Just a few days ago (on Friday, April 29, 2016), Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) of “praying” to his friend and fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) the year after Melanchthon had died. In a blog post titled, “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon,” Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment, as if that were all the proof necessary:

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

The citation is from page 258 in Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J.K.S. Reid (although Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly), and reprinted in 2000 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Slam dunk, right?

In case we don’t believe him, Armstrong links to an image of the page on Google Books. But then he provides another link, this time to a volume containing a 19th century translation of the same source, also on Google Books. He prefaces this second link with the words, “The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in…” as if to disclaim that he is not absolutely saying that this is what the bold-lettered title of his blog post declares it to be: a prayer from Calvin to the late Melanchthon.

Yeah, right.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

As it turns out, at this point in his very real and ongoing war against Protestantism, Armstrong was not using real ammunition. Nor did he have a clear view of his immediate target.

Not only is there nothing in the words he quoted from Calvin to suggest it was a prayer, but if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melanchthon,” (Reid, ibid., 21). And if he had checked the index of his 19th century source, he would have discovered it listed as “Calvin’s solemn apostrophe to [Melanchthon],” (Henry Beveridge, translator, Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments [Edinburgh, UK: Calvin Translation Society, 1849], 2:587). What has been obvious to readers for at least the past 167 years was wholly lost on Armstrong.

The notion that Calvin would lapse into a prayer to Philip Melanchthon so soon after publishing the final editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin: 1559; French: 1560) is analogous to the idea that Bernie Sanders would endorse Donald Trump for President the day after he loses the Democrat nomination. In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” (Institutes 3.20.21, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press], 2:879), and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” (Institutes 3.20.22; ibid., 2:880). Any kind of communication with the dead is impossible, since “when the Lord withdrew them from our company, he left us no contact with them [Eccl. 9:5-6], and as far as we can conjecture, not even left them any with us.” (Institutes 3.20.24, ibid., 2:883.) And yet Armstrong would have us believe that a year after Calvin applied the final tweaks to the extended section of the Institutes in which he thoroughly denounced this practice (3.20.21-27) he engaged in it himself!

As a former Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat shocking that a zealous son of the Vatican cannot distinguish an example of apostrophe from a genuine prayer to a dead saint. It was never difficult for me. All one need do in order to find out what real prayers to dead saints look like is to consult an authentic historical source, such as the prayers of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).

When Anselm prayed to the Virgin Mary, he made specific requests. He asked her to cleanse him from his sins: “let this filth be washed from my mind, let my darkness be illuminated, my lukewarmness blaze up, my listlessness be stirred,” (The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward, ed. and trans., [London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1973], 116). When he prayed to the Apostle Peter he begged for assurance “that I am received, healed, and cherished,” (ibid., 138). He asked the Apostles Paul and John to intercede for him before God: “St Paul, pray for your son,” (ibid., 155); “John, whose intercession I ask,” (ibid., 167). He pleads with St. Stephen that if he will only speak up for him, “I am sure the most loving God will remit the whole of my evil deeds,” (ibid., 177). He asks St. Nicholas to “stir up my spirit, excite my heart, move my mind according to my need,” (ibid., 188). To St. Benedict he prays, “Help me! I beg you to be my protector,” (ibid., 199). To Mary Magdalene he implores, “in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity,” (ibid., 202).

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

But nothing like this is found in Calvin’s address to Melanchthon. It lasts all of a paragraph, and it ends with a quote from a letter that Melanchthon had written to Calvin. Calvin does not ask Melanchthon to intercede for him before God, or apply some of his own merits to Calvin, as we find in Anselm’s prayers. He simply recalls the support Melanchthon had given to him during his lifetime, and moves on to the next paragraph where he recalls his own response to what Melanchthon wrote. The apostrophe is already over by this point, and it includes no petitions, no request, no pleas. The reason for this is simple: it’s not a prayer.

Epilogue

When I first began writing this, I did not see any comments on Armstrong’s blog post. That has changed, and I notice that the issue of apostrophe has been called to his attention. He is not responding very positively to it.

Go figure.

History, Bias, and the Historian

I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.

Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.

The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.

Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?

On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.

A [Troubling?] Defense of Halloween

by Reed DePace

Have you seen this article at Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals?

Halloween: A Distinctly Christian Holiday

I find this very troubling. The historical review seems more or less consistent with what I’ve studied. Even more, given this brother’s background, I’m willing to bend in his direction with facts I might find in question. As well, some of his cultural-historical assessment seems insightful and to that degree helpful. Halloween as celebrated in America does have some “Christian” influences. (I think he at least over-states this, considering Christianity more as a source, maybe the main one, rather than just an influence.)

What bothers me though is the cavalier tone of the whole piece. His writing treats the concerns of Christians about Halloween as silly. They are to be dismissed with a chuckle that says to the person who asked the question that they’re being ridiculous. More, it is as if he thinks he is being kind in limiting himself to saying that. Maybe sometimes this is true for some Christians and some of their concerns, but this article effectively sweeps out all opposition to Halloween as nothing more than the uninformed blather of Neanderthal Christians. Example: placing “neo-pagans” and “neo-puritans” in the same context effectively equalizes both terms. Both become pejoratives for those to be dismissed as effectively un-Christian!

A second glaring concern is the author’s historical rooting of All Saints Day. His review of its origins in the remembrance of martyrs appears sound (as well as I know my history). Yet he then skips over the dominant historical context of All Saints Day in the American celebration of Halloween – its Roman Catholic historical context! Indeed, I would argue that Halloween is more a creation of Madison Avenue (marketing to sell things) and the infiltration of Roman Catholic cultural tradition into weakened American Protestantism in the first half of the 20th Century. Pagan roots to Halloween may very well be blurred or even non-existent (as the author all but asserts). Yet he effectively skips over the DOMINANT influence of America’s Halloween history. This can be seen even at the end of his article where asks three leading application questions. The expected answers to these questions force the reader to AFFIRM the celebration of Halloween or mark oneself as someone who dismisses the martyrs of the Church. Thanks for judging the fullness of my faith on the basis of a dubious secular holy-day.

Christian_Martyrs_Last_Prayer

Christian Martyrs Under the Roman Empire

The “Christian” culture in which Halloween grew is at best a weak period in the history of the Church, not one of her stronger ones. The American secular celebration of Halloween grew out of a context in which the very fundamental truths of our faith, even the nature of the Bible as the thrice-I (inspired-inerrant-infallible) word of God, were being jettisoned by the majority of the TRUE Church. Halloween does NOT have a good historical background, even if we limit it to about the last 100 years. The false-gospel rooted context of the Roman Catholic Church is the dominant “Christian” influence in Halloween.

Add to this the obviously increasing pagan dominance in the celebration of this “holiday” and any suggestion of a true Christian influence is being swept away. The modern family, who decorates their front yard with gruesome displays first seen in an evil Hollywood slasher movie, most certainly is not afraid of death. But that is not because they fear God and rest only on Jesus. They’ve just adapted the power of the position of post-modernism. “Who are you to say I’m wrong! [There are no absolutes!] I’ll hang a decapitated body from my tree if I want to!!! Quick honey, go thaw out some more pig’s blood. The stuff on this neck is drying out!” What, exactly, does that have to do with celebrating the lives of martyers?

Image Result from a search: Christian Martyr Halloween Costumes

Image from a Google safe-search: Christian Martyr Halloween Costumes

Imagine that Halloween were about the celebration of virtuous romance between men and women. Do we really want to encourage our members to dress up God’s precious little ones, their children, as a “prince” or “princess” and go door-to-door in a community where some parents will dress their kids up as prince-and-prince, princess-and-princess, and prince-who-thinks-he-is-a-princess? Do we really want to try to steer around the house with porn movies playing in the living room behind the big bay window, just behind the tree decorated with light up sex toys and the blow up sex doll sitting next to the stuffed animal? Sorry for the graphic inferences, but that is a fair characterization of what Halloween in America, in its UnChristian celebration of the reign of death, is increasingly becoming. We all know it. We just don’t want to address it.

 Image from a Google safe-search: Christian Martyr Halloween Costume

Image from a Google safe-search: Christian Martyr Halloween Costume

Aside from these considerations, I am a bit startled at the close connection he suggests between what is supposedly a secular celebration with the worship of God. He mentions “liturgy” at one point. This reminds us that when talking about Halloween we’re not dealing with a merely secular celebration that happens to have Christian influences. We’re dealing with matters of worship. Indeed a large part of his argument to support children dressing up, getting boodles of candy, only to give dentists job security, rests of the biblical validity of the worship celebration of All Saints Day. I’ll let my puritan loose and express aghast shock at even the inference that All Saints Day has any place in the worship of the Church. My aghast sucking in of a deep breath before I blast “HOW DARE YOU!!!!???” is not opposition to remembering the martyred saints. It is opposition to introducing into worship ANYTHING that adds to God’s word, even by a set of good inferential arguments. The gospel that frees us so we don’t have to be afraid of things in the dark is darkened by such additions. That’s a lot worse than denying a child the joy of dressing up and eating candy as if sugar highs were part of the “blessed life.”

Throughout the article I think the author expresses a cavalier-ness that is most disturbing. I recognize he is seeking to use this tone to challenge what he sees as Neanderthal thinking. Indeed, I admit that Scripture in some places uses such apparently intemperate language to challenge the worst of thinking. But does the secular tradition of Halloween, with its dubious “Christian” sources, does this calls for the use of a cavalier tone? To do so with such sweeping observations, in my opinion, ends up affirming what should not be affirmed, all in the name of Christian liberty!

I get the desire for dressing up. I still have a big chest full of dress ups my kids used when younger, and we still pull these out when visited by families with young kids. I even own my own Elvis mask, thank you very much. But consider what Halloween is becoming; the celebration of the most gruesome forms of death, displayed by dead bodies hanging from trees. Do we really think that has anything valid to do with, even by mere conjecture, the only dead Body hanging from a tree Christians should be celebrating? I acknowledge this author’s desire to rid Christians of the legalistic thinking often attached to the discussion of Halloween. I fear he has inadvertently called holy that which is anything but. His argument is most certainly not one of adiaphora (things indifferent). I don’t expect my voice is all that important, so I don’t expect a response. Yet, sometimes the child must speak when the Father, his Older Brother, and the Best Friend are slighted.

foxe-s-book-of-martyrs-c1780-hand-col-.-burnings-at-smithfield-canterbury-[2]-27499-p

Christian martyrs under the Roman Catholic Church

Let me conclude with some hopeful expressions of peace. Given that this is a public article on a major reformed website, it is biblically moral for me to respond to it on another less well-known but public reformed website. At the same time, given that some of my disagreements are worded somewhat strongly, it would be right for me to also try to communicate these concerns directly with Reformation 21. I did try, for almost a half hour. There was no place to posts comments in response to the article. Further, the only place I could find a “contact us” link was at the bottom of the page, located in the mess of the “site map” stuff. The link did not work. I even tried the “How to Support” link; did not work. I got the same result from other links. It was only after realizing that I could not talk directly with those responsible for this article that I chose to post here. I don’t think I am following a hard and fast rule required of all. I’m observing my efforts however to highlight the degree to which I find this brother’s article disturbing the peace of the Church. It is harmful as written. I am hopeful he means better. I pray the Spirit lead him and the editorial staff at Reformation 21 to think through and consider a re-write.

by Reed DePace

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Interpretation of History

The review of N.T. Wright that I wrote just recently sparked some reflections in my mind on the nature of history. What is the overall shape of history? For Wright, Israel plays a very large role. The question is whether that role is too large. Of course, we live in a post-Holocaust age wherein no one desires to be on the wrong end of “anti-Semitism.” Nevertheless, that should not significantly impact our reading of Scripture, considering that both the writing of it and the majority of its interpretation came before the Holocaust.

N.T. Wright’s construction of history runs something like this: after the Fall, God appointed Abraham (and through him Israel) to fix what Adam broke. However, Israel became part of the problem, because, instead of becoming the second Adam, they revealed that they were in the first Adam, and therefore subject to the Fall. Therefore God, if He was going to put the world to rights, needed to fix Israel as well, and through Israel, the world, so that the promises made to Abraham concerning being a blessing to the nations could be fulfilled. This God did through the faithful Israel: Jesus Christ. Having begun that fulfillment, God will bring it to completion in the new heavens and the new earth, which is not some Platonic divorced-from-this-world result, but rather a transformation of this world, putting it to rights.

Now, there is much that I can agree with in this narrative of history. In fact, I can agree with most of it. However, I would deny that God appointed Abraham himself or Israel itself as the solution of the problem. Instead, Abraham and Israel functioned as the carrier of the Messiah, who was always intended from the beginning (dated from Genesis 3:15, humanly speaking; from eternity, from God’s perspective) to be the solution to the problem of Adam and Eve’s Fall. This does not result in a demotion of Abraham and Israel. To see why this is the case, we must examine Genesis 3:15, which I regard as the fundamental statement of the meaning of history, when it is properly interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture.

Genesis 3:15 promised a battle between two seeds. There would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This enmity must be interpreted in the light of the switch in covenantal allegiance that Adam and Eve had effected in their Fall: instead of being covenantally in agreement with God, they became covenantally allied with the serpent. God’s promise of enmity between the two seeds is a gracious statement of the breaking of that new covenantal allegiance, and reverting that allegiance back to Himself.

The enmity between the two seeds immediately began manifesting itself in the incident of Cain and Abel (it is not terrifically difficult to discern who is the seed of whom, surely!). The two seeds (or two cities, as Augustine would say) continued their battle in the incidents of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel and Egypt, Israel and the Canaanites, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and scores of other stories in the Old Testament. Sometimes the seed of the serpent was outside the people of God. Sometimes it was inside the people of God. The climax of that enmity is, of course, Jesus and Satan, the ultimate seeds of the woman and of the serpent. From Genesis to Revelation, this conflict explains everything that happens in world history, with the seed of the woman ultimately victorious. To me, this makes better sense of world history than Wright’s version, which seems to imply that God’s purposes almost failed when Israel became part of the problem. God’s purposes never came even close to failing, since the whole plan was established before the creation even came into being.

For Israel, not only are they the carriers of the seed, but they are also themselves of the seed of the woman. This is their significance in the Old Testament, and one could hardly think of a higher significance or honor for a people to have than that. The only thing I want to stress here is that God never intended for Israel itself or Abraham himself to be the solution, except insofar as Abraham and Israel looked ahead to Abraham’s greater Son and the True Israel.

Encountering Lincoln’s Melancholy

(Posted by Paige)

I recently finished reading this intriguing study by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and thought it worth flagging for you. His descriptive subtitle – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness – reflects only part of his ambitious project, as this book is not only biography but also a history of the understanding of melancholia in America and a commentary on the artful science of historiography. Though I am not widely-read enough on Lincoln to verify this, the author identifies his work as a unique contribution to the literature on our sixteenth president; certainly it is a rich encounter with the man and his times.

Shenk’s premise, that Lincoln struggled with depression at least since his young adulthood and that in his maturity this psychological pain ennobled his character, drives his research into mental illness, the agendas of presidential biographers, and the details of Lincoln’s public and inner life. Although perhaps the most cumbersome and technical part of his presentation, Shenk’s portrait of what in the 19th century was termed “melancholy” offers a fascinating glimpse of a culture’s developing understanding and (often horrific!) treatment of what we now call “clinical depression.” I’d guess that his explanations of current trends in psychology will try the patience of those who just want to know about Lincoln; but actually my favorite insight about depression comes from Shenk’s discussion of a study of “depressive realism” done in the late 1970’s. Apparently the depressive realists, like Lincoln, have the cockeyed “can-do” optimists beat when it comes to reading the times. I loved this bit:

…one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality…But research shows that, by this definition, happiness itself could be considered a mental disorder. In fact, “much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events.” (135, quoting the researcher Lauren Alloy)

Thus a personality that tends towards melancholy has perhaps a greater chance of assessing what is really going on in this fallen world – which is, of course, insight that even non-depressives might gain beginning with Gen. 3.

In assembling his supporting data on Lincoln’s emotional health, Shenk apparently uncovered a sort of historiographical subplot: the distorting or suppressing of information in favor of a view of Lincoln that dismisses the possibility that he was melancholic. Thus Lincoln’s various biographers come in for scrutiny throughout this volume, especially in an extended appendix (“What Everybody Knows”). Shenk writes,

To some extent, it is an inherent flaw of biography that, in order to wrestle a figure onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two. Rough spots are ironed out. Minor conflicts are magnified to suit the needs of a dramatic narrative. There is good reason to speak of “Herndon’s Lincoln” or “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” because the real man can only be approximated in any of these works, and the imagination of the biographer obviously plays a large role. (237)

Armchair scholars of Lincoln might enjoy crossing swords with Shenk as he evaluates the work of the president’s major biographers; the rest of us can at least appreciate an example of the very real challenge of distilling a life into words – and perhaps marvel again at the “four-dimensional” view of a life provided to us by the Gospels.

While biographers of Lincoln have sometimes found the fact of his chronic depression expendable when composing their accounts, it is harder to tell this man’s story without some attempt to explain his relationship to God, the Scriptures, and faith. Shenk, writing from a secular perspective, evaluates Lincoln’s encounters with Christianity (especially during his presidency) in terms of the psychological benefits of religious belief and practice, rather than giving any weight to the veracity of a religion’s truth claims (see esp. pp.193-195). I suspect the author would also attribute at least some of Lincoln’s depressive tendencies to his Calvinistic upbringing. Yet even he is struck by the wisdom that Lincoln seems to have gained from close study of the ancient words of warning, judgment, and lament; and his treatment of the faith-dimension of Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses is both thoughtful and respectful (pp. 191-210).

So, worth a look. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has read the book, or any insights you armchair scholars have about Lincoln’s Christianity.