Quote of the Week

This week, we hear from Meredith Kline, on a subject that is not one of the normal controversial subjects surrounding Kline’s work, but which nonetheless might very well prove to be controversial. I have not seen anyone address this question before now (which doesn’t mean that no one has, just that I haven’t read it). The quotation is from God, Heaven, and Har Magedon, p. 16:

It is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was conceived, the Glory-Spirit, the Power of the Most High, coming upon Mary and overshadowing her (Luke 1:35). The Father begets the Son through the Spirit. In this process the Spirit is the second person and the Son the third. And as in the spiration of the Spirit so in the begetting of the Son the economic relations of the divine persons are to be seen as analogues of their eternal immanent relations. The fathering of the incarnate Son by the endoxate (this is a term Kline coined to refer to the manifestation of the Spirit’s glory in visible form, LK) Spirit warrants inclusion of the Spirit along with the Father as a subject in the eternal divine begetting, the generating process of which the Son is the object. It is a desideratum, therefore, that a reference to the Holy Spirit corresponding to the filioque phrase in the creedal account of the spiration of the Spirit find a place in our confessional formulation of the eternal filiation of the Son.

What say you? Yes or no? The part that appeals to me about this formulation is that the eternal filiation of the Son has usually left out the Holy Spirit’s role in most theologians’ way of putting things. Kline puts the Holy Spirit back in where He belongs. The question I have revolves around the analogue: is it proper to reason back from the Incarnation to the eternal relations? And can that principle be extended to how the Holy Spirit is involved in the eternal filiation vis-a-vis the Holy Spirit’s participation in the Incarnation?

New Online Resource for Biblical Literacy

(Posted by Paige)

Compass Rose 1I am pleased to invite you to visit the Grass Roots Theological Library, a newly minted website housing the creative debris of a very busy mind.

Not at all intended to rival this worthy blog, my site is meant to be a collection of free, excellent, user-friendly resources for those who are serious about promoting and pursuing biblical and theological literacy for themselves and for others in their spheres of influence.

For pastors, teachers, and other leaders there are original, elder-tested Bible lesson plans and “Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself” . . . For the self-feeding autodidact who may lack professors or peers for the journey there are numerous resources, essays, talks, and lists to help. My goal with all of this is to offer worthy, unpretentious and unique contributions to the never-ending task of nurturing Christian literacy.

Suggestions are always welcome, and new material will keep showing up as time goes along. My personal favorite stuff: over 500 original text-based questions to ask when studying the book of Hebrews . . . weekly brief “Bible Journal” posts sharing some lively commentary on whatever I’m studying . . . my wall maps (you’ll see!).

Intrigued? The proof of the pudding is in the eating – please visit and glance at the Library so that you can know better what I am talking about. If you like what you see, please Bookmark or “Follow” so that you don’t forget about it (you can follow on Twitter also, @GrassRootsTheo). I promise you’ll only get notifications when I post a new Bible Journal piece. And please share this with those in your circles, whether leaders or learners, who would benefit by it!

Welcome to the Library!

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

Posted by Bob Mattes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Theology a Science?

This question is, of course, way too large to address in only one post. However, I was reading Berkhof’s Introduction to Systematic Theology (which is included in the Eerdman’s edition of his Systematic Theology), and I found a really fascinating discussion of this question that was eminently clear and precise. So, what I want to do here is to set forth Berkhof’s arguments and see what people think.

The question revolves around the definitions of the two terms. What one means by “theology” and what one means by “science” will carry the day in answering the question. It seems fairly obvious that if theology is a science, it is a science that is different from the “normal” sciences we think of today (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). With the advent of Kant’s denial that human beings can truly know anything beyond what the senses can apprehend (Kant did not deny the existence of things beyond the realm of the phenomenal world; rather, he posited that they were objects of faith, not knowledge), theology as a science has fallen on hard times.

Berkhof makes the point that many people wanted to retain the idea that theology is a science, but they wanted to do so while being persuaded of Kant’s position. This meant that they had to make theology into a science of observable things (see p. 46). What is observable is the human psyche. So theology had to be redefined as the science of religion (as opposed to the majority definition in church history of theology being the ectypal (creaturely) knowledge of God). In other words, it became the science of what we can observe happening in human beings when confronted with the supernatural. It was thought that the supernatural itself could not be the object of scientific study, but our reaction to the supernatural could be observed.

Berkhof notes several problems with this train of thought. Firstly, this is too narrow a definition of science. If science is limited exclusively to the realm of what we can observe with our senses, then what of those branches of science that deal with the philosophy of science? The material they work with is not sensory information, but is dependent on rational intuition (pp. 46-47).

A second problem Berkhof raises is that science, like theology, is also dependent on revelation. Without a revealed world, science would have nothing to study. As hard as science often tries to get away from revelation, it cannot escape natural revelation at all.

A third problem is that the physical sciences and theology both have tests that can be performed. The physical sciences use the laboratory, whereas theology uses Scripture as a test.

Now, Berkhof asserts that theology is not a science in the same way that the natural sciences are. Theology has a different method, a method determined by the subject matter. However, the question may be raised as to whether science can be reduced to the scientific method. Remember the original meaning of the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge.” Most scientists today would deny that anyone can know God as an object of knowledge. They would typically say that one can only believe in God. However, such a position completely ignores the possibility of the Bible being revelation from God to us. We can know God through His revelation of Himself. That we believe the Bible is God’s revelation does not mean that theology is still all a matter of belief and not of knowledge. The scientist himself has to believe that the tools of his trade are trustworthy (his senses, and his reason). Does that make his field less an object of knowledge and only a matter of belief? Then neither does belief in the Bible as God’s revelation mean that theology is all reducible to belief and has no component of knowledge in it. In short, theology, when rightly defined, is a science, when science is understood in the above way.

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Ivory Tower Theology

A man named Wheeler MacPherson has just written a post critical of my blog. It was a very interesting post in many ways, and therefore I thought I would interact with it a bit. He raises some very important points about the nature of the church, the nature of theology, and what pastors need to be doing.

He first relates an experience he had while waiting for a congregation to exit the church premises. It was a megachurch that rated three policemen to help with the traffic jam. In rather cynical tones, he relates how they couldn’t possibly be expected to delay their egress from the church on behalf of other people. While waiting for the traffic to lighten up, he reminisces about work as a younger man, and how carefree that life seemed. He realizes that he is just as content now, and asks the reason for it. His words are that “I realized that its genesis is tied to the church building. I am no longer a slave to churchianity, and this fact made me, deep down in the true place, more carefree than a beardless bony boy with a lungful of cheap Mexican weed.” One wonders what he means by “churchianity” at this point, whether that includes all forms of organized Christianity, or only some that really seem to get under his skin. More on that later. The next paragraph needs to be quoted in full, as it is rather important:

On his now-defunct blog, a friend of mine wrote recently with power and precision about the absolute foolishness of elevating the bible to a paper idol, and about how a dearth of the Holy Spirit leaves men to “search the Scriptures” without inward or divine understanding. This is an important observation for this desert age. Christians make fun of pagans for chanting prefabricated prayers at their dumb deities, but it’s been my observation that almost all Christians do the exact same thing with their bibles. They force themselves to sit and choke down a portion of Scripture on a semi-regular basis, and yet this diet never seems to nourish them, never seems to make their muscles grow, never seems to bring the glow of spiritual health to their spiritual cheeks. Christians chirp to each other their favorite verses (almost always lifted out of context and appropriated in the most grossly inappropriate ways) and remain utterly ignorant of what those verses actually mean. They can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting. Instead, they prefer to farm out the actual learning and insight to the paid professionals – and why not? After all, they pay their pulpiteers quite handsomely to churn out their little talks.

What Wheeler says here is something I also have noticed, and I like it almost as much as he does! I would describe it this way: Christians reading the Bible always to confirm their own ideas, and never allowing the Bible to challenge what they believe, or how they live. Their conception of the Christian life is determined entirely by what they learned in Sunday School 50 years ago, and the Bible hasn’t changed their thinking on anything during that whole time. This is probably not the only scenario in which people’s thinking becomes reified, but it is a very common one.

What follows is a sustained critique of the general content of my blog. I will try to concentrate on the substantive points that he makes, and ignore the rhetoric, which is quite strong. The first point he makes is that I identify myself as a “reverend,” when Jesus tells his followers not to give themselves titles. He tries to preempt any kind of a response by saying that if I were to defend myself on this point, I would be “explaining away” the text. I would respond by making a few points about titles. Firstly, Jesus does not condemn all titles, or else He wouldn’t have allowed the disciples to call themselves “apostles” later on in the epistles. Also, what about elders and deacons? It seems to me that Wheeler has absolutized one text and has not seen it in the context of the rest of Scripture. When Jesus ridicules those who arrogate titles to themselves, He is telling us several things: 1. that we should not give ourselves titles; 2. that no title should ever be used as a way of puffing ourselves up by means of pride. Jesus says nothing in those contexts about using titles that other people have given us. If He did, then He would directly contradict Himself when He gave the title “apostle” to the twelve apostles! Jesus gave the titles to the apostles. In my case, I did not give myself the title “reverend.” It was given to me by the denomination in which I serve when I was ordained. Furthermore, the only reason I mention the title in the page is so that people will know something of my background as a minister of the gospel as an ordained minister in the church. I certainly do not intend to use that title as a way of self-aggrandizement.

Still less am I defining myself by that title, contrary to his assertions. It is a formal title. When I introduce myself in person to someone, I do not use that title. I just say “I’m Lane Keister.” Wheeler is therefore reading into my page what is not there.

Next, he quotes something from a blog post I wrote last year, paraphrasing someone else’s comments (!). He attributes the quotation to me, when the thought is not actually mine. It is Joel Beeke’s thought, somewhat paraphrased by me. What follows this quotation in his post is something I am frankly mystified by. I don’t know what he means when he accuses the church as a whole of racism. Nor do I understand his reference to my graduating from a seminary that celebrates MLK Jr. Day. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t follow his point here.

The next point he makes is basically the “ivory tower” accusation: that this blog exists to debate irrelevant, unimportant theological points, and does not address what is really important in life. He says, “Real enemies and real lessons to be learned, real challenges that require real effort on the part of men who face real, individual dangers every real day.” It would be nice for him to give us some examples of what he is talking about. It must be pointed out here also that he can’t see my day-to-day ministry. He can’t see me counseling people with marriage problems, or drug problems, or depression, or anger management (all of which are present in the church I serve). He can’t see me visiting the sick in the hospital, or the elderly in their nursing homes. And so he makes the assumption that because this is a blog about theology, that therefore it is an example of unrealistic, ivory-tower theology, and that I’ve effectively got my head buried in the sand.

This brings us to the definition of theology, which I think is a very important point in the discussion. Is theology relevant to our lives or not? I follow the Puritan definitions here and claim unequivocally that theology is always relevant to our lives. The problem here is that Wheeler has a much narrower definition of theology and what is relevant than I do. He seems to be defining what is relevant as what is practical, and by that he (probably) means something that will help with the “real enemies and real lessons…real challenges.” Let me ask him this question: has he ever stopped to think about what kind of impact a proper appreciation of the Lord’s Supper could have on his spiritual growth? Or has he ever stopped to think that the proper understanding of justification can lift infinite weights off of people’s souls? Has he stopped to think that even the doctrine of the Trinity (often considered the least relevant doctrine of all) is actually the most relevant according to Jesus in John 17 and according to Paul in Ephesians 1, that it is the Trinity as Trinity that accomplishes our salvation and applies it to us? The problem here is not that my definition of theology is too ivory-tower, but that his definition of “relevant” is way too narrow. If the Bible talks about it, then it is relevant. Period. I like to talk about the Bible and what it means. I do this on the blog all the time. That is the heavy lifting he is in fact talking about without realizing it.

I suspect that Wheeler has been hurt by the institutional church greatly some time in his past. I know many people like this. My heart goes out to them, because I know exactly how ugly the church can be. It has been quite ugly to me, in fact, and on many occasions. The church has warts and blemishes all over the place. However, Revelation 21-22 invites us to look at the church as she will be in all eternity: like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. This is the true church. Here is a question for Wheeler: does he believe that we can truly love Jesus Christ and not love the bride that He loves so much, and gave Himself for?

Growing in Devotional Discernment

C.S. Lewis once said:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

What I wish to talk about today is discernment in reading Christian books so that we will grow. There is a large tendency in evangelicalism and also in Reformed circles, to read nothing but “devotional” literature. By this I mean books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life.” I am not going to disparage such books completely, although Warren’s book has some serious theological problems with it. Devotional books can indeed lift our spirits heavenward on occasion, especially the better ones, and by the better ones, I mean primarily the Puritan devotional literature. There is, however, one big difficulty with devotional literature, and it can be illustrated by an analogy. Supposing someone told you that in order for you to experience the emotion of joy, you had to pursue the experience of having the emotion joy. “Just feel joyful” they might say. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work. If you just lost a loved one, for instance, joy may be hard to come by, and it might be even harder to achieve if someone tells you that you need to pursue it. Because then you pursue it in ways that do not tend to bring joy, but rather despair, because when you pursue something and don’t get it, then the pursuit becomes quite counter-productive. The same thing can be said about devotion to God. Telling someone directly that they must be devoted to God emotionally and spiritually is often counter-productive.

It can be much more productive to try an indirect way. Ask yourself this question: what are some reasons why I should love God? Well, look at who God is. You can’t look at God very long before you realize just how beautiful He is, with all His marvelous Trinitarian attributes, dazzling in their multi-faceted unity. Similarly, look at what He has done, and you can’t help but love a God who loves us that much, and has shown us that much grace. But do you notice what we just did in asking those questions? We have moved out of the realm of most devotional literature, and instead entered the realm of systematic theology. We asked questions about who God is and what God has done. Those are the primary questions that systematic theology seeks to address. The answers to these questions give us reasons to sing. The promote what my father lovingly calls “doxological didacticism.” This brings us back to the quotation by C.S. Lewis. What Lewis was getting at was that the indirect approach to devotion (getting at devotion to God through theology) is often more effective than trying to do it directly.

The problem is that most Christians are absolutely terrified of “systematic theology.” They think that they cannot understand any of it. They think that it is irrelevant and impractical. What I would say to that is that any theology that is not understandable, or that is irrelevant and impractical is not good theology, but rather bad theology! The Puritans used to define theology itself as the science of living for God. That obviously has a very strong practical component in the very definition of theology itself. I would go even farther. A systematic theology that is impractical is not even theology at all. All true theology is practical and useful. Theology that is not understandable is not theology but gobbledy-gook.

Here is another way of thinking about systematic theology. Systematic theology asks one question many times, and that question is, “What does the Bible as a whole say about x?” You can fill in “x” with any theological topic you want. The process of comparing Scripture to Scripture will result in a larger picture of what the Bible says about God, man, sin, Jesus Christ, redemption accomplished, redemption applied, the church, the sacraments, the last things, and other topics. Systematic theology is something that we do all the time, even though we may not call it that. Whenever you ask a question about who God is or what He has done, you are engaging in systematic theology. The word “systematic” simply means that after you have compared Scripture with Scripture, you will wind up with a system, or a pattern. The Bible itself commands us to do this. “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” (2Ti 1:13 NKJ) This passage tells us that there is a pattern, or system, to what Scripture teaches, and that we are to hold it fast. Obviously we cannot hold it fast, unless we know what it is. It is not a system or pattern that we impose on it from outside the Scripture. Rather, it is the pattern that the Scripture itself suggests. Jude tells us to contend for the faith once for all given to the saints. There is a special sense given to the words “the faith.” The Faith in that sense is what we confess, a body of doctrine. Whether you look at Jude’s way of putting it or Paul’s way of putting it, the Bible commands us to engage in systematic theology. It commands us to search the Scriptures to see what the Scripture says about various things.

All this to say that if we as teachers in the church are not growing by asking these questions, then we risk several unmitigated disasters: 1. We will not pass on this pattern of sound teaching to our children, and their knowledge of the Christian faith will be very fragmented, and they will therefore be unable to cope with all the challenges they will face in a secular world (they will be swept away by people who have a more coherent system of thought!). 2. We ourselves will not have discernment when it comes to new books and ideas that come out. Systematic theology gives you a core of knowledge to which you will always be adding, and to which you can compare any new thing that comes along. If you don’t have that core, you will have almost no discernment whatsoever. 3. Our teaching itself will be fragmented, disjointed, and illogical. It will have a much more “stream of consciousness” feeling about it. We do not want Faulkner theology. 4. We will stagnate in our growth as Christians, because we will not be learning how to read our Bibles better, and we will not be challenged by anything. We will want everything spoon-fed to us. We will be dipping our toes in but never learning how to swim.

So read books that will make you stretch. Read books where you will not automatically understand everything that is said, but where you have to grow in order to understand. Read books where you might need a dictionary of theology terms handy. Read Calvin’s Institutes, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, and get what you can out of it, which is a lot more than you might think. Then ask questions so that you will grow. If you are not growing, then your students won’t grow either. So work through that tough bit of theology with a pipe between your teeth and a pencil in your hand! You might find your heart singing the praises of God more often than you might think.

Great interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark, church historian, pastor, and Westminster Seminary California professor, interviewed Rev. M. Jay Bennett for the Heidelcast. Jay was the lead prosecutor for the TE Jeff Meyers’ Federal Vision trial in Missouri Presbytery. The interview comes in two parts, with the second part slated for next week. In the first part that’s posted now, Dr. Clark covers Teaching Elder Bennett’s background, a bit of Federal Vision (FV) background, and the timeline leading up to the Meyers trial. The latter provides some insight into how the discipline process in the PCA proceeds. As usual, Dr. Clark conducts an informative and engaging interview which I highly recommend. Scott and Jay discuss a few anomalies in the case history, but so far haven’t mentioned the big one in my opinion.

In the trial record of case, on page 872, you see that Missouri Presbytery (MOP) was basically pushing TE Bennett out of the presbytery, which would, of course, make him unable to complain against the decision in the Meyers case. In the end, MOP succeeded and the PCA Standing Judicial Commission apparently let MOP get away with this ploy without even reading the record of the case. The bigger story is that MOP had kept men like TE Mark Horne, another Federal Visionist like Meyers, without call for over 3 years. Yet, TE Bennett, who opposes the unreformed FV, was being bounced almost immediately. The politics is pretty clear when looking at the bigger picture.

To be totally up front, I signed the original letter of concern mentioned in the interview and was a witness for the prosecution in the Meyers case, flying to St. Louis on my own nickle (i.e., at no cost to MOP) for the trial. I worked with Jay on my testimony, and found him a fair, honorable, and confessional teaching elder who deeply loves the Reformed Faith and understood the unconfessional nuances in the Federal Vision. The PCA owes TE Bennett a great debt of gratitude for standing firmly for the gospel in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, and check back next week for part 2. And you could benefit greatly by following Dr. Clark’s Heidelblog as many of us do.

I would be remiss without adding that Jeff Meyers, after being acquitted by MOP, now teaches with all the FV heavyweights at an FV school. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Announcing the New Covenant

(Posted by Paige)

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

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

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

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

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