Not One Word?

This past week saw yet another public controversy erupt regarding a Christian pastor and matters pertaining to sexual ethics.  Most of you are aware of President Barack Obama’s first choice of Pastor Louie Giglio to give the benediction at the upcoming second inauguration.  As the story goes, Giglio was effectively canned because he preached a sermon years ago in which he affirmed biblical teaching that homosexuality is sin.  Needless to say, this was too much to bear for an administration devoted to “tolerance” and “diversity” (whatever those terms mean these days).  The homosexual activists who supported the President’s re-election got what they wanted and so the pastor will not give the benediction after all.

But the controversy didn’t end there.  It only escalated to a rather absurd level.  This week, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell gave his take on the matter along with an interesting commentary on using the Bible in the swearing-in ceremony:

This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendent of slaves. But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting someone near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due.  We need to thank O’Donnell for at least having the honesty to admit that the Bible does indeed teach that homosexual behavior is a sin, although he couches this teaching in emotionally-dripping language of “condemning gay people” (echoing the culture’s attempt to make one’s perverse behavior into a personal identity).  It’s a subtle attack on Christian orthodoxy to be sure, but the acknowledgement of what the Scriptures teach on that subject is duly noted and appreciated.  Yet the same can’t be said regarding his statements on slavery. Continue reading

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Richard Baxter on Library Essentials

If you had to pick but a few essential items to have in your theological library–yes, a few bare bones essentials–then what would they be?  The Puritan Richard Baxter once asked such a question: “What books, especially of theology, should one choose who for want of money or time can read but few?”  He asked this in his work, A Christian Directory, in a section entitled “Ecclesiastical Cases of Conscience.”  Here’s the list Baxter came up with:

* The Bible

* A concordance

* Commentaries

* Catechisms

* A work on the doctrines of the Gospel

* “…as many affectionate practical English writers as you can get.”

This is what Baxter called “the poorest or smallest library that is tolerable.”  The aforementioned list was summarized on p. 39 of J.I. Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  So far it’s an excellent read and it’s great to find little gems like this.

Posted in books, education, exhortation, history, theology | 1 Comment

John Calvin on Lent

This week I was pleasantly surprised to see the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog re-post my article on Lent.  It’s not an issue quite like justification or the Trinity, but it’s important nonetheless for a variety of reasons.  In some sense it is indeed connected to justification, particularly how we view our own actions before God.  Rather than go on about this again, I’d much rather quote someone whose theological knowledge dwarfs my own.

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.12.20), John Calvin had this to say about the practice of Lent:

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven.

And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him.

In short, the nature of his fast is not different from that which Moses observed when he received the law at the hand of the Lord (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). For, seeing that that miracle was performed in Moses to establish the law, it behoved not to be omitted in Christ, lest the gospel should seem inferior to the law. But from that day, it never occurred to any one, under pretence of imitating Moses, to set up a similar form of fast among the Israelites.

Nor did any of the holy prophets and fathers follow it, though they had inclination and zeal enough for all pious exercises; for though it is said of Elijah that he passed forty days without meat and drink (1 Kings 19:8), this was merely in order that the people might recognise that he was raised up to maintain the law, from which almost the whole of Israel had revolted.

It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ; although there was then a strange diversity in the mode of the fast, as is related by Cassiodorus in the ninth book of the History of Socrates: “The Romans,” says he, “had only three weeks, but their fast was continuous, except on the Lord”s day and the Sabbath. The Greeks and Illyrians had, some six, others seven, but the fast was at intervals. Nor did they differ less in the kind of food: some used only bread and water, others added vegetables; others had no objection to fish and fowls; others made no difference in their food.” Augustine also makes mention of this difference in his latter epistle to Januarius.

It’s clear that the human condition is indeed universal.  There’s always a tendency to want to “do something.”  To add something to the Gospel.  To craft something of our own in order to please God.  This is especially appealing to the uniquely American philosophy of pragmatism.  Praise God that He is pleased with His people only because He is pleased with the person and work of His Son, our only Mediator.

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John Calvin on Abortion

In his commentary on Exodus 21:22, John Calvin had this to say regarding the act of abortion:

For the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.  If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.

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The Context of 2 Timothy

The importance of context when discussing biblical passages is certainly nothing new, but it’s important to constantly remind ourselves of this.  2 Tim. 3:16-17 is often cited, appropriately, as one of the biblical sources we have for the sufficiency of Scripture.  You really can’t talk about sola Scriptura without citing it.  And yet, many defenders of this biblical doctrine don’t often see the overall context of 2 Timothy itself which makes the argument for Scripture’s sufficiency all the more powerful.

As the Apostle Paul is writing this, he knows that he will soon taste death and that this epistle will likely be his last.  In this situation, he gives Timothy essential instructions regarding the ministry of the church.  These commands are perpetual to the church in all ages.  As James White states on page 46 of his book, Scripture Alone:

Paul gives Timothy no indication that God will someday banish false teachers from disturbing the saints, at least not until that final day when the bride will be presented to her husband “having no spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27).  So what is Timothy to do, now that Paul will no longer be there to give him guidance?  If ever there was a point where the apostle would refer to some kind of extra-biblical source of sufficiency, it would be here.  If Paul believed we should look to a papacy, or to some Spirit-led prophet, or to some group of leaders, or to some new source of revelation, this would be the place to delineate this all-important source of aid for his beloved Timothy.  What he does instead is perfectly in line with the teaching of Moses, the prophets, the Psalter, and, most important, the Lord Jesus Christ: He directs Timothy to the God-breathed Scriptures as the never-changing, always sufficient source of truth…

That is by far one of the best expositions (albeit brief) of 2. Tim. 3:16-17 I’ve ever read.  Apostolic teaching on this issue is certainly clear.  Not only is Scripture alone unique in its God-breathed attributes, but the church itself cannot stand without it.  After all, it is the preaching of Scripture which produces the church (Rom. 10:17), not the other way around–sustaining the church from generation to generation.

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We Have Tradition Too! – Part 2

In Part 1 of this article on tradition, we looked at the distinction between sola Scriptura and so-called “solo” Scriptura while emphasizing the necessity of tradition.  Sola Scriptura does indeed mean “Scripture alone” as the ultimate authority of faith and practice, but this doesn’t mean that biblical interpretation is done in a vacuum.  The practice of modern Evangelicalism appears to be the me-and-my-Bible approach of “solo” Scriptura in which all tradition is thrown out altogether or otherwise made subordinate to the interpretative whims of the individual.

With respect to the individualism found in modern Evangelical approaches to biblical interpretation, it is important to concede that Roman Catholic critics are at least partly right.  There is most certainly an element of the “lone ranger Christian” at work here along with a very low view of the church.  Membership in the local church is now seen as something loose or fluid, assuming that it exists at all.  Yet where these same Roman Catholic critics err is their assertion that this situation in modern Evangelicalism is somehow representative of historic Protestant teaching.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aside from Scripture, the magisterial Reformers consciously and openly appealed to early church fathers as well.  They made it clear that their efforts at reforming the church were not rooted in something novel, but had the backing of centuries of church tradition.  Indeed, John Calvin relied heavily upon the testimony of early church fathers in his famous reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in which he articulated a systematic defense of Reformation doctrine.  In particular he cited Chrysostom in echoing the warning to beware of those who promote new doctrines under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit affirms what God has already spoken in the Scriptures rather than theological novelties.  Both Rome and the Anabaptists had been guilty of the latter. Continue reading

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Thornwell on the Purpose of the Church

We live in a day and age in which the church is having an identity crisis, much of which is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Great Commission.  Like many problems in the church today, this one is nothing new.  The 19th century saw the same problem in which many people started to see the role of the church as an agent of social change in the world.  Responding to this trend, James Henley Thornwell said the following:

[The church] is not, as we fear too many are disposed to regard it, a moral institute of universal good, whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill, whether social, civil, political, moral, and to patronize every expedient which a romantic benevolence may suggest as likely to contribute to human comfort….  The problems which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the church has no right directly to solve.  She must leave them to providence, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and cherish.  The church is a very peculiar society;…it is the kingdom of her Lord Jesus Christ.

This view stands in stark contrast to the sentiments of many modern Evangelicals who are not satisfied with the biblical purpose of the church: a ministry of the Word, sacraments, and discipline.  Ditching these three marks of a church, Evangelicals have redefined both its nature as well as its purpose.  Churches are now seen as agents of cultural change within the community, arms of larger political movements, and visible extensions of social welfare programs.  Thornwell continues: Continue reading

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We Have Tradition Too! – Part 1

In today’s milieu of theological discussions, it seems prudent to properly define our terms and ensure that all participants are on the same page.  The onset of post-modernism certainly hasn’t helped matters and our discourse is often given over to confusion more than anything else.  I’ve noticed this especially in discussions between Roman Catholics and Protestants regarding the issues of sola Scriptura and the proper role of tradition.  There’s a great misunderstanding on each side both in terms of the definitions themselves as well as the history behind them.

The point of this article isn’t so much to refute Roman Catholic arguments as it is to help fellow Protestants to understand what sola Scriptura actually means while at the same time articulating an appreciation for tradition in its proper role.  Many Protestants have an incomplete or even distorted view of what constitutes tradition.  In a knee-jerk reaction against Rome, there are Protestants who deny that they have any kind of tradition at all.  While having good intentions, they mistakenly assume that upholding the doctrine of Scripture-alone means eschewing tradition altogether.

Yet as Keith Mathison and others have demonstrated, there is a huge difference between sola Scriptura and so-called “solo” Scriptura.  Roman Catholics and Protestants alike seem to miss the difference.  This, I believe, is what has given rise to the “solo” Scriptura defense among Protestants who simply don’t know any better.  Here we see the importance of church history along with a solid understanding of basic theological terms.  The modern Evangelical church is woefully ill-equipped in this regard. Continue reading

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Critical Text vs. Majority Text

I’ve never blogged about this issue explicitly since I’m still learning about textual criticism and the like, but attending the annual Keach Conference this past weekend shook up my thinking quite a bit.  And that’s as it ought to be.  The Christian life is not about staying in our comfort zones.  At sundry times and divers manners, God sends things our way which help to shape our thinking.  Those of us who came out of Arminianism into accepting the doctrines of grace know this very well.

The conference topic was the doctrine of providence (chapter 5 of the Confession) and part of this included a discussion on the providential preservation of the holy Scriptures.  Prior to this conference, I was a typical 20-something Calvinist who used the ESV.  I try not to be overly dogmatic when it comes to different translations, but I really liked the ESV.  Such is not the case anymore, for textual bombshell was thrown in my lap which made me rethink my stance.

One of the speakers, Rev. Malcolm Watts, addressed the issue of God preserving His word over time.  It was immediately apparent that he was an advocate of the Majority (or Byzantine) Text.  He explained much of the history behind the competing Critical (or Alexandrian) Text and why he believes this text to be inferior–indeed, utterly corrupt.  I had only a minimal understanding of these issues prior to the conference, but his presentation really popped some breakers in my mind. Continue reading

Posted in history, Scripture, teaching | 6 Comments

Calvin on Faith and Sanctification

Today is John Calvin’s birthday, so I decided to present a quote from this saint who was used so wonderfully by God to reform His church.  One of the many corrections in doctrine made during the Reformation was the proper relation between faith and works.  In the following quote, Calvin expounds upon the reality that the Christian is sanctified by faith in order that he may obey God’s law:

Christ, by his righteousness, intercedes for us before the Father, so that we might be declared righteous, he being our advocate.  In just the same way, by making us participants in his Spirit, he sanctifies us, in order to make us pure and innocent.  For the Spirit of the Lord came upon him without measure–the Spirit of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of strength, of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord–in order that we might all draw from his fullness and receive grace from the grace given to him (cf. John 1:16).

Those, then, who boast of their Christian faith while being at the same time entirely without the Spirit’s sanctification, deceive themselves.  For the Scripture teaches that Christ has not only been made righteousness for us, but also sanctification.  As a result, we cannot receive his righteousness by faith without embracing at the same time that sanctification.  The Lord, by that covenant which he made with us in Christ, promises that he will both take away our sins and write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:-34; Heb. 8:6-12 and 10:11-18).

Obedience to the Law is not, then, a work within our power to accomplish. The power to accomplish this work comes from the Spirit who cleanses our hearts from their corruption, and softens them to be obedient to righteousness.

Now the Law is of no use at all for Christians, outside of faith.  In former days the outward teaching of the Law did nothing but accuse us of weakness and transgression.  But since the Lord has engraved a love for his righteousness in our hearts, the Law is a guiding lamp to keep us from leaving the right road.  It is the wisdom which trains us, instructs us and encourages us to become upright.  It is our rule, and it will not tolerate being destroyed by wrongful liberty.

(From Calvin’s work, Truth for All Time, translated by Stuart Olyott)

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