Life's busy, read it when you're ready!

Create a free account to save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

Browse thousands of RP articles

Articles, news, and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians.

Get Articles Delivered!

Articles, news,and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians delivered direct to your inbox!


Most Recent


Theology

The Father’s gift: His people are of inestimable value

While all gifts are special, there are some we absolutely treasure. This greater attachment might be due to the occasion, the thoughtfulness, or the giver of the gift. I remember receiving a digital keyboard from my parents for one of my birthdays, and it wasn’t a cheap little thing. I had demonstrated an affinity for playing music on the home organ or piano, and they wanted to encourage me with this special gift. I still have it and my children use it to this day. A precious gift There is, of course, no better gift-giver than our heavenly Father, and when we think about our heavenly Father’s best gift, we think of Christ who was God’s gift to us. There is no bigger gift! However, in this article, I want to explore another precious gift the Father has given, this one to his Son. And that gift is you! When we consider the Father’s great love for us, we need to pause a moment. Why does God love us? I am inclined to say, “because Christ died for us,” but isn’t that backward? Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son.” God’s love for us is what caused Him to send his Son. Or consider Romans 8:5: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Because He loves us, He sent Christ to die for us. Christ’s suffering, Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. We are very precious in the sight of our Father. We are a great treasure to Him. But He will not let us remain miserable and stained by sin – He loves us too much for that! That is why He sent his Son. When He was on earth, the Lord Jesus understood his mission and purpose. The Father had a people whom He loved from before the foundation of the earth, but they had become wretched sinners. In order for these beloved people of the Father to be declared holy, righteous, and acceptable in his sight, the Father needed them to be washed. And this was accomplished through the blood of Christ. From Father to Son But the Father gifted his treasured possession to his Son. Let’s consider John 6. In this chapter, Christ has fed approximately 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. It was a miracle. He then teaches those who followed Him across the sea, that He was the greater bread from heaven. Using metaphor and analogy, the people would not understand what Christ was saying when He told them that they had to eat of his flesh, etc. Now, consider what He says in verse 37: “All that the Father gives me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out.” Jesus makes it clear that He receives those whom the Father gives to Him. He says it again in verse 39: “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Christ understands his purpose. What He is doing on earth has everlasting consequences – even the resurrection of the dead! Let’s also consider John 17: 1-2, the opening words of Christ’s high priestly prayer:

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him.“

Christ has come to earth as God’s gift to his beloved, and to receive the Father’s gift of those very same people. Christ came to save, redeem, and receive specific persons: the ones whom the Father loved and gave to his Son. John 17:9-10 reads:

“I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”

Both Gift and Gift-receiver And finally in John 17:24:

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

Christ delights in being the gift of the Father and receiving us as gift from the Father. All true believers need to consider the significance of this truth. The Father loves us so much that He sent his Son, to humble Himself, taking on the form of man and suffering on the cross. And the Son does this because He loves his Father, and He loves us! He died for us, while we were still sinners, while we were still unclean and unworthy. It is only by his death that we have been made worthy, made alive to live in that loving fellowship with God! Christ is not the only gift of the Father. Yes, Christ is the greatest gift, together with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but you and I also are gifts from the Father; gifts sent from the Father to his Son. That’s how precious you are! It is my hope that we truly understand how precious we are in the sight of our Triune God. For the Spirit loves us too, and causes us to love God rightly. In Romans 15:30 we read, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit…” More of the working of the Spirit could be written, but my point here has been to focus on the precious place we have in the relationship between the Father and the Son. If we struggle with a sense of worthlessness, or a sense of insignificance, we must call to mind that in the sight of God we are precious and of inestimable value. If that weren’t the case, why would the Father have sent his Son? Indeed, our value is not rooted in who we are, but in Whose we are! That makes all the difference! I hope we can be encouraged by this great truth that the Father loved us so much that He sent his Son to suffer and die for us, and He shared his very treasured possession (you) with his Son. Let’s live a life excelling in thanksgiving!

Dr. Chris deBoer is host of the Focal Point podcast.

Church history, Theology

Why and how the Nicene Creed came to be

The word “orthodoxy” comes from the Greek orthos which means right, true, or straight, and doxa which is praise, or opinion. Therefore, orthodoxy is having the right opinion on a specific topic, usually religious. In the early church, orthodoxy had to be discovered and established by means of study, debate, and decisions. While the early church was quite unanimous in the use of baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was some significant disagreement about the nature of the interrelationship between, and nature of, each person of the Trinity. For example, Sabellianism taught that there was not three distinct persons in the Trinity, but that God simply manifested himself differently for different purposes: God was Father at Creation, Son at Redemption, and Spirit in Sanctification. Attending to Arius The impetus for articulating the Nicene Creed, however, was not in response to Sabellianism, although it certainly addresses this belief, but in response to Arianism. Arius taught that Jesus was the first created being, created from nothing, and inferior to God. As Bruce Shelley puts it in his, Church History in Plain Language: “He was a lesser being or half-God, not the eternal and changeless Creator. He was a created Being – the first created Being and the greatest, but nevertheless himself created.” Arius was an elder in Alexandria, and the bishop of that city was Alexander, whom Arius falsely accused of Sabellianism. However, Arius and his followers were eventually deposed and excommunicated by a Council held in Alexandria, and including 100 bishops from Egypt and Libya. But his deposition did not keep Arius from hosting religious assemblies and sharing his views. Even some well-positioned bishops empathized or agreed with his position. As time progressed, “Alexander vs. Arius” became a dividing point between bishops, between provinces, and started to cause increased division in the church. The emperor at this time was Constantine. He noticed that the debate on the nature of Christ was dividing the Church and might even be a threat to the empire. In a startling shift from the severe persecution by Diocletian the previous emperor, Constantine invited bishops and elders from all across the empire, at his expense, to come to Nicea, in order to reach a consensus on this important issue. There were between 1500-2000 attendants at this council. In his History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff explains that the members of the council were divided into three camps. The smallest camp was made up of members who believed in the deity of Christ from eternity (i.e., Alexander, Athanasius, etc.). The second group was made up of those who agreed that Christ was created and of a lesser substance then the Father (i.e., Arius, etc.). The third group, the vast majority, leaned towards the orthodox position, but were undiscerning and did not seem to care for doctrinal debates or scholastic discussions. They could have been prepared to accept a compromised position. Arius’ camp proposed the first summary of their position; their creed was quickly dismissed and the debate must have been convincing. Sixteen of the eighteen original proponents of the Arian creed abandoned the cause. No room for compromise Eusebius, a church historian at that time, presented an alternative creed, originally approved by Emperor Constantine. It was similar to the completed Nicene Creed, but missing the claim that Christ was of the same substance as the Father. It acknowledged, in general terms, the divine nature of Christ, but was not explicit in articulating the co-equality and co-eternality of Christ with the Father. The Arian camp was prepared to adopt the creed as presented by Eusebius which caused the camp of Alexander and Athanasius to be quite suspicious. They wanted a creed that Arians would reject entirely. There was no room for compromise. They continued to insist on the inclusion of the phrase “of one substance” which Arians rejected as Sabellianism – that the Trinity is three modes of the one God, not three persons. However, as the debate continued, Constantine noticed that Eusebius’ creed would not pass, and so he gave his consent to insert and include “of one substance” in the creed. The version of the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council and signed by most of the members at the Council read thus:  “We believe in on God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from then he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. “And in the Holy Ghost. “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” (Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 1) This is the first instance in the Christian Church that office-bearers signed such a document. It expresses agreement with, and also submission to, the content of this creed. Eusebius, the one who had presented the creed without “of one substance” was prepared to sign this creed without the last paragraph, the condemnation of Arius teaching, and for this he was deposed and banished until he later conceded to sign the creed in its entirety. In the end, only two bishops, together with Arius, refused to sign and were banished. This is also the first time that there was a civil consequence applied because of church issues. The separation of church and state was eroding quickly. Round 2 We might think the story ends here and the debate on the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father is finished. We’d be sorely mistaken. Some of those who had signed this did so because of the Emperor’s approval of it. As such, it didn’t take long for some of them came to the defence of Arius. Eusebius the historian (who presented the compromised creed) starting to throw all of his influence against those who supported the phrase “of one substance.” Even Constantine was convinced at some point of the idea that Christ was created “of a like substance” to the Father (not the same), but eventually came back from that. However, Arius was no longer banished and he was expecting to take up his place as elder as he had previously, but by this time Athanasius was the bishop and refused to reappoint him to the office. However, two Arian councils were held that condemned Athanasius, and even the Emperor banished the bishop for being a disturber of the peace. Arius was formally acquitted by a council in Jerusalem (A.D. 335) and was to be received as a full member by the church at Constantinople. Schaff goes on to explain, “But on the evening before the intended procession from the imperial palace to the church of the Apostles, he suddenly died (A.D. 336), at the age of over eighty years, of an attack like cholera, while attending to a call of nature. This death was regarded by many as a divine judgment; by others, it was attributed to poisoning by enemies; by others, to the excessive joy of Arius in his triumph.” Athanasius had to wait until the death of Constantine (337) to be recalled from his banishment (338) by Constantine II. A few months later, he convened a Council in Alexandria to reaffirm the Nicene Creed, but his victory was short lived. The changing emperors, the constant divide between the Eastern and Western portions of the empire with regards to church doctrine, and the opposing Councils hosted by various bishops did nothing to bring peace or unity. At one point, Constantius, a son of Constantine, held three successive synods that supported a moderate Arianism (i.e., “of like substance”) and forced the decrees of these councils on the entire Church, East and West, and then deposed and banished bishops. At then, as Schaff highlights, he even brought in the troops: “ drove Athanasius from the cathedral of Alexandria during divine service with five thousand armed soldiers and supplied his place with an uneducated and avaricious Arian.” For a number of decades, through various emperors, the fight for orthodoxy seemed grim. At some point, even in the city of Constantinople, there was only one congregation, pastored by Gregory Nanzianen, that remained faithful to the Nicene Creed. Many bishops had been banished, recalled, banished again, etc., depending on the emperor’s perspective. During a short period of a revival of paganism, under the rule of Julian that Apostate, both parties were invited to exist side by side as he wanted the Church to keep fighting among itself in order to destroy itself. Finally, in 381, Theodosius the Great, who was educated in the Nicene faith, called the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in May. Only bishops from the East came to this Council, it seems, as the Roman (Latin) church was quite agreed with the orthodox position. This Council did not create a new creed, but they rearticulated the Nicene Creed, as we have it today, for the most part. Schaff explains that, by July, the emperor “enacted a law that all churches should be given up to bishops who believed in the equal divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost… the public worship of heretics was forbidden.” Conclusion Orthodoxy had to be discovered and defended. Today, almost anyone who identifies as a Christian confesses the truth of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are significant exemptions). I sometimes wonder if we truly appreciate the battles that were fought in order to maintain truth and to keep a right understanding of scripture. This, of course, is the most significant outcome of the battle for and around the Nicene Creed. However, two other major points that were mentioned briefly should be reconsidered for a moment. First, the importance of adding one’s signature to the Creed at the first Council: office-bearers today also sign a form of subscription when they enter upon their respective offices. We do this, in part, to protect orthodoxy, and the orthodoxy of our churches, as it were. We express agreement with the Ecumenical and Reformed Creeds, and should we have any concerns with any part of them, we agree not to address them in public, and to submit to the decisions of our local consistory or classis. Doing otherwise would lead to being suspended from the office. This sounds similar to what happened at the Council of Nicea. The second important point is the role of the government in these affairs. Once Constantine championed Christianity, the emperors that followed thereafter had a significant role on the formation, deformation, and reformation of the Church. Under Constantine’s rule, the Church enjoyed an unprecedented sense of prestige, protection, and power but with the change of an emperor, things quickly changed. However, the truth of God’s Word does not change with changing circumstances. That’s important to keep in mind, as today again, the Church’s circumstances have changed dramatically from even fifty years ago. In the West the Church is no longer held in any sort of regard, but is considered a fringe organization, especially when it persists in defending orthodoxy. Many churches have reacted to the changing of society by changing what they consider to be orthodox. May faithful churches today continue to strive in remaining faithful to the entirety of God’s Word, to his honor, and all the more so when persecution, tribulations, and trials come our way. Culture does not define or set the parameters of the truth of God’s Word, but God’s truth should define what is acceptable and good to cultivate. Dr. Chris deBoer is the Executive Director of Reformed Perspective Foundation....

Church history, Theology

How and why the Apostles’ Creed came to be

The Apostles’ Creed, as we possess it today, was not the first formally adopted or crafted creed. That honor belongs to the Nicene Creed. However, versions or parts of the Apostles’ Creed, serving as a baptismal confession, can be traced back to Irenaeus of Lyons (180), Tertullian of Carthage (200), Cyprian of Carthage (250), and Rufinus of Aquilega (390) among others. The creed of Marcellus of Aneyra from 340 reads: I believe in God the Father Almighty. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; Who was born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried; The third day he rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost; The Holy Church; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body. Despite the various articulations of the rule or standard of faith, there was a lot of unity on the core tenets of Christianity. Eventually, these various forms were merged into the Apostles’ Creed. However, it took longer still for it to be universally adopted. In his History of the Christian Church (Vol. 1), Philip Schaff suggests that: “if we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles’ Creed as a complete whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, and certainly not beyond the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century, or about the time when the bishops of Rome strenuously endeavored to conform the liturgies of the Western church to the Roman order.” The Apostles’ Creed has as its foundation Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and the baptismal instruction in Matthew 28:19: “… baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” While the Apostles’ Creed is sometimes divided into “twelve articles of the Christian faith” it would be fair to suggest that there are three main divisions: God the Father and our creation God the Son and our redemption God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 8). A hedge against 3 heresies The Apostles’ Creed was articulated, not only as a baptismal confession, but also as a defense of orthodox Christianity. In the early church, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism were threats to the unity and purity of the church. Gnosticism In his book, A History of Christianity (2 Volumes), historian Ken Latourette explains that: “ regarded pure spirit as good, but thought of that spirit as having become imprisoned in corrupt matter. Salvation was the freeing of spirit from matter.” They also had a view of God that is quite convoluted. Latourette notes that, in general, Gnostics “held that there exists a first Principle, the all-Father, unknowable, who is love and who alone can generate other beings” and since love demands companionship, the all-Father brought forth other beings into existence who collaborated to create this world. “The present world was ascribed to a subordinate being, the Demiurge, who was identified with the God of the Old Testament.” Marcionism Marcion, influenced by, but distinct from Gnostics, believed that the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews was an evil God. As Latourette his views this way: “’Good men,’ he held, were those who yielded obedience to the law of the Demiurge, but they, too, were the creation of that evil God.” He believed that there was a second God, one of love who, seeing the suffering of men in this evil world, sought to rescue them. His love was one of true grace because he owed these creatures nothing because they were not his, but belonged to the evil God. This God of Love revealed himself as Christ and could not have been born of flesh, born as a creature of the Demiurge, but only seemed to have a body; he only appeared as a man. Montanism Montanism was quite distinct from Gnosticism and Marcionism. While Gnosticism spoke about secret knowledge, Montanism suggested a new era of revelation. Montanus, sometime between 156 A.D. and 172 A.D., encouraged greater separation of the church from the culture of the age. While this could have been solid instruction, it was accompanied by his belief that he and his two prophetesses were speaking in tongues and prophesying in the name of the Spirit, focusing on the early and imminent return of Christ. Bruce Shelley, in his book, Church History in Plain Language, notes: “Montanus’ doctrine of the new age of the Spirit suggested that the Old Testament was past, and that the Christian period centering in Jesus has ended. The prophet claimed the right to push Christ and the apostolic message into the background. The fresh music of the Spirit could override important notes of the Christian gospel; Christ was no longer central. In the name of the Spirit, Montanus denied that God’s decisive and normative revelation had occurred in Jesus Christ.” After error, clarity These three early heresies helped the church to shape the growing articulation of orthodoxy. It also drove the church to work on discovering which bible books should be canonical. For example, the Montanists wanted nothing to do with the Old Testament, had very little good to say about New Testament books written for Jews (e.g., Matthew, Hebrews), and really focused on Paul’s more substantial letters. Montanus’ canon would have been significantly smaller than what we have presently, to be sure. When the church formulated and adopted the Apostles’ Creed, they confessed, contrary to the Gnostics and the Marcionites that God, the Father almighty, is the same God who created all things, both physical and spiritual. They also confessed that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. In this, they again made it clear that there is nothing inherently evil in material things. They also make it clear that there is no division between God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – they are not working at odds with each other. While the unity and diversity of the one God in Three Persons is implied in this creed, it is not explicitly expressed. Schaff explains that the creed was: “explained to catechumens at the last stage of their preparation, professed by them at their baptism, often repeated, with the Lord’s Prayer, for private devotion, and afterwards introduced into public service.” As a means to make a profession of faith before baptism, Schaff also explains that some early versions of the creed were interrogative, that is, the three main sections were formed as questions. For example, “do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?” The response: “I believe” or in Latin, “Credo.” The Creed today The Apostles’ Creed remains an integral part of many Reformed catechisms as well. Working through the Apostles Creed today remains valuable for growing in knowledge and understanding of God’s holy Word. The confession that God is the Father Almighty speaks to His sovereign power, providence, and covenantal love. The creed’s commentary on Christ speaks to His nature as God and man, His victory over death and the grave, His ascension, His return, and His coming judgment. The creed speaks about the work of the Holy Spirit as He is at work in the Church, the Bride of Christ: those who live as a communion of saints whose sins are forgiven, who will be raised on the last day, and are promised eternal life! The Church has been richly blessed by the formulation and the preservation of the Apostles Creed. Perhaps it makes sense to recite it daily during family devotions, or when you get up in the morning. Keeping this creed in our hearts and at the forefront of our minds may assist in equipping us for remembering that every day serves as an opportunity for serving the Lord! In the episode below of his Focal Point podcast, Dr. deBoer discusses some points about the most controversial phrase of the creed, ”He descended into hell.”  ...

Church history, Theology

When they thought the Apostles had written their creed…

It is interesting to note that there has long been a belief that the Apostles’ Creed was written by the apostles of Christ on or around Pentecost with each making a specific contribution. That’s why it has also been known as the 12 Articles of the Christian Faith. While there is little evidence that the Apostles had any such role, in his Divine Tragedy, Longfellow includes an epilogue outlining each apostle’s traditional contribution to the creed. We include it here, just for interest’s sake. Peter: I believe in God the Father Almighty; John: Maker of Heaven and Earth; James: And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; Andrew: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Philip: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; Thomas: And the third day he rose again from the dead; Bartholomew: He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; Matthew: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. James, the son of Alpheus: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church Simon : The communion of Saints; the forgiveness of sins; Jude: The resurrection of the body; Matthias: And the Life Everlasting....

Humor, Theology

What is humor?

What is humor? It seems a simple question, with a very obvious answer: humor is whatever makes us laugh or smile. But then what of all the cruel pranks and the sacrilegious gags that make so many laugh? Even the crudest of comedians can get big laughs. The fact is, we laugh at a lot of things that just aren’t funny. So we aren’t interested in simply what makes us laugh. Instead we’re going to explore genuine humor, the sort of humor that gets laughs but can be shared without shame – we’re going to explore Christian humor. DEFINITION OF HUMOR Humor is a term used in English since the early eighteenth century to denote a type of writing or speech whose purpose it is to evoke some kind of laughter. So laughter is a key element. But we want to go deeper – we want to go beyond the knock knock joke. Instead of being something merely light or superficial, the best humor depends upon profundity. "A humorous rejoinder, " said Kierkegaard, "must always contain something profound." For example here’s a joke about a person getting their just deserts (as described in Galatians 6:7-8):  While doing his daily rounds a prison chaplain stopped in on a prisoner who had been assigned the task of making pillowcases for the entire 5,000 inmate prison. “Good morning,” said the chaplain, “Sewing, eh?’ “No, Chaplain, “ replied the prisoner with a grim smile. “Reaping.” Elton Trueblood observed that humor takes intelligence: "It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable to high seriousness and a sense of the tragic." THE NEED FOR HUMOR Sometimes humor is dismissed as being trivial but genuine humor is an important and effective tool in many settings. Properly used, it can allow us to see our lives in more realistic proportions, restrain an explosion of anger, and deliver us from pessimism and despair, and do so much more. For example, it can be a wonderful educational tool and a means to restoring order in a classroom with a smile. It can even be a way to ensure better parent/teacher relations as a wise Grade 1 teacher was said to have done by sending the following note home on the first day of school: "If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says happens at home.” Humor is a necessity within the church as well. When we lose our sense of proportion and humor, controversies in the church become battlefields. We look for "heretics" in each corner and even tend to look under our bed before we dare to go to sleep. We can be so busy with controversies we can no longer hear the footsteps of our approaching Lord, whose coming is at hand. And how sad it is to see people spend time and energy to paint their position in bright colors and put others in worse light than warranted. We may not build bomb-free shelters where criticism cannot enter. Humor should not be overlooked in evangelism either. It is easy to visit people who are with you, but it is hard when they are filled with bitterness against the Lord and His church. With tact and humor we can make contact with people who are filled with criticism against church members, and especially ministers. Real humor blossoms only where God's Word has taken root. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones," says Solomon (Prov. 17:23). So a Christian remembers that he is always in the presence of God, and his speech is the gift of the Creator. As Augustine put it: "Speech is not simply our possession; it is God's gift to us. To recognize and acknowledge this gift in truthful words is to offer grateful praise to the One from whom it comes." LAUGH AT YOURSELF All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself shows we understand some of our imperfections. A Christian who understands he is living his life under the judging eye of God does not boast about his moral achievements. He understands that is pride and folly. One of the qualifications of a missionary is a sense of humor - while learning a new language and new customs it is easy to make embarrassing blunders. When we were serving in the Philippines, I made my share, and a good laugh at myself helped me survive. But there is another side to laughing at oneself. If we keep laughing when we have done something wrong, if we cannot recognize the real evil of sin, laughter turns into folly. If we continue to laugh after having recognized the depth of evil we have committed, our laughter becomes the instrument of irresponsibility. DISTORTED HUMOR It is easy indeed for humor to be distorted. A.D. Dennison, a Christian cardiologist, says in his 1970s bestseller Shock it to me Doctor that he recalls one man who sped up to a drugstore and asked the druggist if he had anything for hiccups. The druggist, without a word, hit the man between the eyes and knocked him to the floor. The man slowly got up and graciously asked again, "Sir, do you have anything for hiccups?" The druggist replied, "You don't have them any more do you?" The man responded, "No, I never did, but my wife out in the car does." This may be a clever joke, but it’s is devoid of compassion and respect for others. Is this Christian humor? A type of humor often used during war is called "gallows humor." Soldiers are known on occasion to engage in hysterical laughter when nerves are tense before the battle. They speak flippantly of the possible dire fate which might befall this or that man of their company. "Sergeant," a soldier is reported to have said before a battle, "don't let this little fellow go into battle before me. He isn't big enough to stop the bullet meant for me." The "joke" was received with uproarious laughter by the assembled comrades. But when the "little fellow" died in battle the next day, everyone felt ashamed of the joke. At any rate, it was quite inadequate to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem of death. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out: "If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy." HUMOR IN THE BIBLE If we are going to investigate true humor, then we must not overlook the Bible. The Bible deals with very serious subjects – heaven, hell, sin and salvation - but that should not cause us to overlook its literary beauty, and the humor in the Bible. There are critics who regard the Bible as deficient in the sense of humor and they can point to the fact there is little laughter in the Bible. But the Bible is filled with humor. Humor in the Bible appears especially when idolatry is mocked. One powerful example occurs when Isaiah pokes fun at a man who carves an idol from wood. In chapter 44:15-17 he describes in some detail the absurd process: "It is a man's fuel for burning, some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares a meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.'" GOD LAUGHS The only instance in which laughter is attributed to God occurs in Psalm 2:4, which says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” This is not a happy image – God is pictured laughing at man and having him in derision because of the vanity of his imagination and pretensions. God mocks kings who plan to divide the world amongst each other, while God says to the Messiah, " I will make the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (vs. 8). But the humor in the Bible is not limited to that of derisive laughter. Throughout Scripture God reveals a real sense of humor. When the human race wanted to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves, "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building (Gen. 11:5). God acts as if the tower of Babel is so small that He can't see it from heaven – He had to come down to see it. And when Israel is threatened by the Philistines, God uses a most unlikely means to save His people so that the Messiah could come in the fullness of time. What does He do? God writes history with a small stone from a brook. Young David with a small stone smites Goliath and Israel was rescued. JESUS AND LAUGHTER The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the eternal Son of God took to himself, “a truly human nature so that he might become David's true descendant, in all things like us his brothers except for sin” (Q&A 35). So when we speak about Jesus and humor, we are not disrespectful, We accept His incarnation as real. He was seen as the carpenter's son. Christ's characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. But it is very important to understand that the purpose of Christ's humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. When Jesus teaches His disciples about being light bearers in this dark world, he uses sly humor about where to put light. The message is about the necessity of witness, but the failure to be a witness is rendered laughable when Jesus asks, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushes, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21). Since the lamp mentioned has an open flame, and since the bed is a mattress, it is easy to see that in this situation the light would be suffocated or the mattress would be burned. The appeal here is to the patently absurd. The sensitive laugh; they get the point. When Christ said not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), He was again employing the patently absurd to make His point. Christ tells us that we are not to waste precious words or time or effort on those who chronically resist the Gospel. We must remember, of course, that the joke about casting what is precious before the pigs was even more preposterous for a Jewish audience than it is for us. The rejection of pork was deep-seated in their consciousness. Christ's major weapon against the Pharisaic attack was laughter, and He used it fully. The point at which they were most vulnerable was their manifest self-righteousness. There is no one more ridiculous than the sinner who claims to be perfect. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting demons in the name of Beelzebub, "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?" (Matt. 12:27). Jesus pokes fun at the critics, since everyone who listens will realize that the subtle question has no possible answer. Christ's question really means, "By what demonic agency do you perform your miracles?" It is easy to see that the humorous question is a far more effective rejoinder than a serious argument about demons. The severest critics of Christ could not stand ridicule, for seriousness was their central strength. CONCLUSION What then is the secret of true humor? The answer is found in the Gospel. It is to know that you are a forgiven a sinner, to have no illusions about the self, and no inclination to appear morally better than you are, either in the sight of man or of God. Our release from bondage of sin gives joy. This joy expresses itself in an exuberance of which laughter is not the only one, but certainly one, expression. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews, Theology

Two on worship...and the prevention of worship wars

With the restrictions on church attendance easing, many people are saying: “Can't wait for Sunday." Did you know that there is also a book with that name by Michael Walters? The back cover has a large heading which says: "A Silver Bullet for the Worship Wars." After reading Dr. Wes Bredenhof's book on worship, Aiming to Please, I dove into this one book with its intriguing title. There is some overlap between it and Aiming to Please, in chapters on liturgy, music, and sacraments. However, there are also new topics in Walter's Can't wait for Sunday. For example, Walters comments on the acoustics of the sanctuary. While many (of our) church buildings are optimized for the speaking voice, Walters points out that the sanctuary has multiple functions, including a space for singing and music. Therefore, the room should be acoustically designed for both speaking and singing. Bredenhof and Walters both look at pulpits, which Walters sees as being replaced by a “lectern” in modern churches. He comments: "The presence of a pulpit communicates that it is the Word of God, not the communicator, that is most significant in preaching." He continues, noting that modern communicators often prefer to have no barrier between themselves and their audience. Yet, pastors would do well to let their congregations know why they use "the sacred desk." While Bredenhof comes from a singing tradition with a select number of songs that the congregation knows well, Walters comes from a different practice where the songs are in abundance. The result: "Hymn singing can be a stretch for many worshipers these days." Having many songs for the congregation to sing means there may be too many to be familiar with them. His advice is: "It is better to know ten or twelve hymns well than thirty perfunctorily.” Perhaps something to keep in mind while the Canadian Reformed churches are considering adding more songs. Worship often changes, and Worship Wars start because of a lack of knowledge and understanding. It is essential to know why we do what we do. Both of these books would be an aid to any who want to learn. Frank Ezinga blogs at FrankEzinga.com....

Theology

HERETIC? Let’s not throw bombastic terms around glibly

I was once labeled a heretic. In fact, I’m sure it’s happened more than once. And no, it wasn’t Roman Catholics or Muslims saying this – although they would/should certainly classify me as such. This was other Reformed believers. The occasion was a blog post where I shared Richard Sibbes’ answer to the question of whether saints in heaven are aware of our trials and miseries (he said they aren’t). Some didn’t agree with that and I was therefore labeled a “heretic.” There are at least two related issues involved here. First, there’s a popular notion amongst some Reformed believers that every theological error is a heresy. This notion equates error with heresy, as if they are complete synonyms. Second, there’s another notion (found with some) that treats all theological errors as if they were of the same weight. Every theological error then becomes a matter of heaven or hell. In such thinking, to administer the Lord’s Supper differently is virtually in the same category as denying the Trinity. It might not ever be said that crassly, but when you look at what’s said and done, it often seems to come down to that. Heresies put salvation in jeopardy To really understand what’s involved here we need to turn to church history. Today’s misuse of the terms “heresy” and “heretic” are often caused by a lack of understanding of how these terms have been used historically. In the centuries after the apostles, debates raged about certain doctrinal points. In these debates, certain teachings were ultimately considered to be heretical. By “heretical,” the Church understood that holding to such doctrines put one’s salvation in jeopardy. In fact, there were certain teachings where, if one held them consistently and unrepentantly to death, one would not be saved. The word “heresy” was reserved for these teachings that struck at the heart of the Christian faith, attacking fundamental doctrines. One of the most obvious examples is the doctrine of the Trinity. Denying the doctrine of the Trinity (in various ways) is regarded as heretical. The Athanasian Creed lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then says in article 28, “So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.” If in any way you deny that God is three persons in one being, you’re a heretic. Another example has to do with Christ and his two natures. Says the Athanasian Creed: “It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now the right faith is that we should confess and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.” If you deny that Christ is both true God and true man, you’re a heretic. When we say that, it should be clear that we’re making a statement about the seriousness of this error, namely that this is an error for which someone can be damned. A heresy is a deadly error. The biblical basis of making such strong statements is found in places like 1 John 2:22-23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Another classic example of a heresy is Pelagianism. Pelagius and his followers denied original sin and taught a synergistic view of salvation: since humans are not dead in sin, they can cooperate with God in salvation. The Council of Carthage in 417-418 condemned Pelagianism as a heresy and declared that those who held to it were anathema – “anathema” means “eternally condemned and outside of salvation.” The Council could confidently assert that because of what Scripture itself says in passages like Galatians 1:8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let me him be accursed.” In Greek, Paul used the word anathema. The Church has always regarded Pelagianism as another gospel, and therefore an accursed heresy. Reformed confessions use heresy with restraint Our Reformed confessions are rather careful in what they label as heresy. Canons of Dort 3/4 article 10 reaffirms that Pelagianism is a heresy. Belgic Confession article 9 mentions several “false Christians and heretics”: Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Arius. These were in deadly error with regard to the Trinity. Certain Anabaptists are also described as holding to heresy in Belgic Confession article 18. Though they’re not mentioned by name, the Confession is referring to Menno Simons and Melchior Hoffmann. They taught that Christ doesn’t have a real human nature from Mary but that, in his incarnation, he took his human nature from heaven. This is a heresy because it runs into serious trouble with the two natures of Christ, and specifically whether his human nature is a true human nature. 2 serious errors that aren’t heresy Let me now mention two prevalent errors that aren’t heresies. Theistic evolution isn’t a heresy. It’s a serious error which may lead to heresy, but as such, it’s not a heresy. I’ve never referred to it as such and I’ve cautioned others against describing it as such. Women in ecclesiastical office is a serious error conflicting with Scripture. It emerges from a way of interpreting the Scriptures which could lead to far more serious doctrinal trouble. However, you shouldn’t say it’s a heresy. That wouldn’t fit with the way this term has been understood and used in church history and in our confessions. Too loaded a term for smaller disputes Not every theological error is a heresy. Certainly, someone’s disagreement with you on a particular doctrinal point doesn’t allow you to loosely throw the term “heretic” around. The words “heresy, heretic, heretical” should be reserved for only the most serious doctrinal errors, the ones where the Church clearly confesses from the Scriptures that these views are salvation-jeopardizing. By that, we also recognize that not all errors are of the same seriousness. We definitely want to strive for doctrinal precision and accuracy, but we also have to realize that not all points of doctrine carry the same weight and therefore we can, even in confessional Reformed churches, have some room for disagreement. If that’s true with regard to doctrine, it’s even truer with respect to practice. True Christians eager to follow what the Bible teaches reach different conclusions on such things as vaccinations or the lockdowns of the last year. When you see a fellow believer with different convictions about living as a Christian, be careful before you bombastically toss around that label, “Heretic!” It’s a loaded term never to be used glibly....

Theology

Infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism: What’s the main difference?

The fundamental difference between the two positions is revealed in how one answers this question: Is baptism primarily God’s action or is it a human response? The Bible tells us that we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). Consequently, it is God who makes us alive in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4). Even our faith, which is our response to God’s great work of salvation, is of divine origin. Faith itself is gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Infant baptism testifies to the grace of God in salvation: God is the one who initiates, acts and saves. Believers-only baptism testifies to our response of faith to God’s saving work in ourselves. On this view, baptism is a sign and seal of my public profession of faith in Christ Jesus. An overlooked argument There are plenty of helpful resources on infant baptism, and most of them rightly link baptism to circumcision. In Genesis 17, God promises to be “God to you and to your offspring forever (Gen. 17:7). There is great comfort in knowing that God binds himself by covenant to infants even before they can respond to him by faith. Truly, we love him because he first loved us. Often overlooked, however, in the discussion on infant baptism are Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. Although these verses do not provide a comprehensive understanding of infant baptism, they provide another important line of thought. Put simply: Paul assumes that New Testament baptism is the fulfillment of Mosaic baptism. Paul writes: "For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness." (1 Cor. 10:1–5) Four observations There are many golden truths that need to be mined from these few verses but consider the following four simple observations, which help us understand the meaning of infant baptism. 1. The Church is the new Israel First, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul applies lessons from Israel’s history to the church. Paul can do this only because he sees the church as the fulfillment of Israel: the church is the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). More specifically, Paul sees Mosaic baptism as having relevance for the Christian church. This explains why Paul can tell the Corinthians that this event – Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea – is an example for them (1 Cor. 10:6). The Old Testament is not a random collection of stories in which God interacts with a people that have no connection to us. No! For Paul, the Old Testament is part of our story. The story of Israel is the history of the church. These are our parents - these are our “fathers” (1 Cor. 10:1) – and since God does not change, he continues to relate to us in the same way he related to Israel: by means of the covenant. 2. In this case all means all Second, Paul notes that all of Israel was baptized, ate the same spiritual food, and drank the same spiritual drink. In this case, “all” means “all.” The elderly, the infants and everyone in between were baptized. Whatever else we can say about this passage, it is clear that infants were baptized when they crossed the Red Sea, as they escaped from Egypt. And if infants were baptized, numbered among God’s people, and partook of Christ in the Old Testament, it only makes sense that they would enjoy the same privileges and blessings today. 3. The Red Sea was the work of God Third, Israel’s baptism was pre-eminently the work of God. It was God who led our fathers by pillar of cloud. It was God who opened wide the Red Sea and provided the dry ground. It is true that the adults had to respond to God’s work by faith – they had to walk on the dry ground. And it is also true that the infants who could not walk, but were carried by their parents, were beneficiaries of this baptism. They were delivered from Egypt along with their parents. 4. Baptism is not a guarantee Fourth, baptism does not guarantee salvation. Paul says that God was not pleased with most of Israel, and they were overthrown in the wilderness. Who were these people? They were the adults who rebelled against God and the leadership of Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until they died off and their baptized children were old enough to enter the Promised Land. God was indeed the God to these children despite the apostasy of their parents, and their baptism reminded them of God’s faithfulness toward them. Conclusion There is much more than can be said about this passage. However, these brief observations are sufficient to lead us to the following modest conclusion: The Apostle Paul retells the story of Israel’s baptism in the Red Sea because he believed that they participated in an event that corresponds to the sacrament of Christian baptism.1 Endnote 1 Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 67. Rev. Garry Vanderveen blogs at Show, Don’t Tell where a version of this first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission....

Politics, Theology

Haggai and the call to rebuild the temple: a case study in Church/State relations

Canadians find themselves beginning 2021 under varying levels of lockdown. Across our country churches are wrestling with how to respond. The Bible seems to contain few practical examples of believers facing something comparable to our current scenario. However, over the Christmas break, I stumbled across an article about the story of Haggai and its connection to the book of Ezra. The story struck me as having particular relevance, or at least uncanny parallels, for the church in Canada today. I offer this reflection not to recommend a particular way forward for churches in Canada as it relates to restrictions on corporate worship, but to at least help some Christians better understand the decisions of some church leaders who have made the decision to continue worshipping corporately despite (near) total prohibitions in their province. In the May 2020 edition of The Messenger (a denominational magazine of the Free Reformed Churches), the late Pastor Gerald Hamstra published a meditation about the rebuilding of the temple in the post-exile period. Though the books are spaced far from each other in the Old Testament canon, the events of Haggai and parts of Ezra occur simultaneously. Many of us are familiar with the narrative of Haggai, where the prophet calls on the people of Israel to rebuild the temple: "This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” "Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 'Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?' "Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.'" – Haggai 1:2-6 It appears, on first reading, that the people of Israel were selfishly caring only for themselves and their own houses and ignoring the worship of the Lord without a thought for the temple in ruins. However, that is not the whole picture. In the book of Ezra, we find the rest of the story. Why had the rebuilding of the temple ceased? King Cyrus had issued a decree permitting the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and charging them to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:2-5). But the Jews, soon after their return, faced many challenges and obstructions from those living in the region and even from the local civil magistrates (Ezra 4:1-5). Eventually, these opponents, with malicious lies, convince a subsequent king, King Artaxerxes, to stop the building of the temple entirely. Having been persuaded by the reports of the local magistrates in Judea, the king concludes that the temple-building efforts are a threat to the security of his kingdom and decrees that the temple work must cease. "As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop. Thus, the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." – Ezra 4:23-24 For some sixteen years, the temple lay in ruins because of the king’s edict. Over the course of those years, the crops began to fail and the people were struggling. They were not flourishing following their return from Babylonian exile. Pastor Hamstra, reflecting on this story, explains: “ interest in the temple and the worship of God was waning. They erroneously viewed the encountered opposition as a divine indication that the work on the temple should be discontinued.” (emphasis mine) It is worth noting that the order from King Artaxerxes for the Jews to cease building the temple was not a form of direct persecution. The king was not operating with anti-Semitic animus or anti-religious prejudice. He had been convinced by his officials that there was a threat to the safety and security of his realm. So, he ordered the project to cease. Questions of safety and security are under the proper authority (or “sphere”) of the king. So, the Jews submitted to the civil government, ceasing work on the temple. But in this case, the people of God had mistakenly viewed the challenges to building the temple and the intervention of the local authorities as an indication from God that the temple work must stop. God sends Haggai to call the people to repent, to return to building the temple, and to observe the corporate worship of the Lord in the way He prescribed. Haggai makes it clear that the worship of God is to be held in the highest regard, and that King Artaxerxes had been wrong to stop the building of the temple for the worship of God. In the face of opposition, the people begin to rebuild God’s people respond in faith to the call of the prophet. They recognize the punishment for their disobedience, and the suffering they were enduring because of it. Just a few weeks after Haggai delivers his message and encouragement from the Lord, the Jews restart the temple building project. In Ezra 5 we read that the local magistrates came to the building site to see why the people had begun building again in apparent defiance of the king’s orders: "At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?” They also asked, “What are the names of those who are constructing this building?” But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received." – Ezra 5:3-5 Though the local rulers questioned them, the Jews continue to rebuild the temple. The call from Haggai was to obey God, regardless of what the earthly king or the local magistrates declared or forbade. They obey God unquestioningly. Interestingly, as the Jews resume their work, the local governor Tattenai sends another report to the Persian king, King Darius, about how the Jews were rebuilding the temple contrary to the decree of the previous king, Artaxerxes. In that report, Tattenai lists the Jews’ legal defense: that King Cyrus had decreed that they should build the temple (Ezra 5:6-15). King Darius orders a search of the archives and confirms the truth of the matter. He orders the local governors and their associates to “keep away” and to “let the work on this house of God alone” (Ezra 6:6, 7). The Jews are vindicated! Are there any lessons here for today? The parallels to today are striking. In this Old Testament story, we see conflicting government decrees, human opposition to corporate worship, the disdain of the people of God by some levels of civil government, and hasty orders by rulers motivated by fear for safety. We also see commands from God and confusion on the part of His people as to the right way forward. We also see God giving direction, and redirection, patient with His people while unwavering in His call to worship. We see His mighty hand turning the hearts of leaders for His glory and the good of His people. Some lessons in this story for the people of God today include how God’s people can appeal to, and be vindicated by, the higher laws and decrees of civil governments. Perhaps appealing to the original decree of Cyrus (where he first granted permission to the Jews to build the temple), is comparable to church leaders appealing to a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Perhaps the Jews’ refusal to abide by the second decree of Artaxerxes while their appeal makes its way to the court of Darius is comparable to the path chosen by some church leaders to resume corporately worshipping God while challenging the legality or constitutionality of overly broad public health orders through the court system. Though I don’t think this story is prescriptive of the way forward for churches in Canada today, the story of the rebuilding of the temple does provide some insight for the 21st-century church to ponder in light of significant restrictions by the civil government on corporate worship. Even if you don’t agree with the decisions made by some churches to continue worshipping, that decision should at least be understandable in light of the Ezra and Haggai story. One thing we can remain confident in is that God rules over the nation of Canada today, just as He has over the nations and empires of the past. He is faithful to those who put their trust in Him. It is our daily duty to pray, work and worship to the glory of His name! "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." – Jeremiah 17:7-8 This article first appeared on the ARPA Canada blog here. Colin Postma is the Federal Issues Manager for ARPA Canada...

News, Theology

A conversation on authority

It was the type of conversation that, in other circumstances, the two friends might have had at a quiet pub, over a couple of beers. But with the pub closed, and travel restricted, Zach and Owen were making do: beers from the fridge, a couple of comfortable office chairs, and a Skype call to bridge the distance between them. Zach was the one who had suggested the chat. One of his go-to verses, Proverbs 27:17, spoke of how, like iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another, so he was grateful that Owen had been up for it. After some opening how’s-the-weather small talk, Owen got them right to the topic at hand: “Okay, Zach, how about you start us off by defining the two sides of the debate as you see them?” The two sides? “Sure, I can give that a go. There are all sorts of related issues, but I’m most concerned with the government-ordered church lockdowns. I think we’d agree that we don’t like them – the government shouldn’t be treating the church as “non-essential” or, as is happening in some places, closing churches while leaving bars and strip clubs open. But the real question is, how should we respond to that order? The two stands I’m hearing are: Churches should listen because we should submit to the government. Churches shouldn’t listen because the government doesn’t have the authority to close churches. “I think I fall in with the first group, and from what you’ve been posting on social media, you seem to be in the second.” “I do probably fall on a different side of this than you,” Owen agreed, “ but I’d define the two sides differently. I think a lot of people are framing it just the way you did, but defining the sides that way also defines away any possibility of common ground: either a person is for listening, or he’s against it. What if it wasn’t two entirely opposing sides, but instead was two different emphases? God calls his people to submit to authority. Not every order is an authoritative order. “Like you, I believe we are called to submission. And when I argue against church lockdowns, I’m not rejecting God’s call to submission – that’s not where we differ. What I’m arguing is that the order isn’t legitimate. If my son ignores what you order him to do, that isn’t a rejection of parental authority. He just doesn’t believe that your orders have parental authority for him. I think this is the same type of thing.” Two reasons to obey: submission and agreement Zach nodded slowly: “I appreciate that clarification. Your approach – seeking out the common ground – makes me want to take a step back and see where else we might agree.” “Sounds good. Why don’t you start us off with why we should submit?” Zach clicked on his mouse to pull up a document he’d written earlier: “The big reason has to be because in passages like Romans 13:1-6, 1 Peter 2:11-20, Titus 3:1, and Deut. 5:16, God makes it a command. He’s telling us to submit to the authorities that He has put in place, so children should submit to parents; a wife to her husband; the congregation to the elders; slaves to their masters; and citizens should submit to their rulers.” “Right, and let me offer a second reason: agreement. This might seem to go without saying, but Christians who don’t believe we have to submit to a lockdown order might still want to suspend their church services if members comes down with COVID. I don’t think the government has the authority to issue that order, but I wouldn’t want my congregation to ignore it just for the sake of ignoring it. Listening might be the sensible thing to do.” One reason to disobey: obeying God rather than Man “Okay, Owen, we basically agree on those points, but now we’re back to when and why it would ever be right to defy a government order. I can start us off with one ‘reason to defy,’ but I’ll add I don’t think it applies to these lockdowns.” “Okay, go ahead Zach.” “In Acts 4-5, Peter and John are commanded by the authorities to stop talking about Jesus, and their response is, ‘we must obey God rather than Man.’ I guess this would be related to what you were saying about not every order being authoritative. All authority comes from God, so if some lower authority issues orders that conflict with God’s own orders, then we should listen to God, and can, in good conscience, ignore the orders from Man.” “Can you give me an example outside the Bible of that happening?” Zach smiled: “I’m not going to say the church lockdown but…” “Go on.” “Well, I’ve heard some people pointing to church closures in China. The government there is ordering some churches to close permanently, and when members defy those orders and continue meeting in secret, I think that’s a case of obeying God rather than Man. But I don’t think you can link that to what’s happening here in the West. China’s church closures are because the State there is deliberately attacking the Church. Our church closures are in response to a health crisis. And our closures are temporary – however long that temporary had been – or only partial, and we can still hear the preaching of the Word via technological means.” “Can you think of that kind of obeying-God-rather-than-man situation happening closer to home?” Owen asked. Zach considered the question for a few moments before shaking his head. “No. But it seems like you’ve got something.” “I do. It’s actually what’s happening on the home front that has me almost happy about these hard conversations that we’ve been forced to have right now. It’s stressful and it's been divisive, but the silver lining – one of the ways I can see God turning this to our good (Rom. 8:28) – is that these are conversations churches and Christians in the West need to have. In the past, submission was our unthinking default. And, I guess, it should still be our default now – I heard one pastor put it this way: when the Church does have to defy the government, our reputation for honoring and respecting the authorities should be such that the government’s response is ‘What? You guys?’ But trouble is coming, and we need to understand the limits of our governments’ authority if we’re going to be ready for it.” Zach leaned forward: “Okay, you’ve got my attention.” “The most recent example,” Owen continued, “of a government order that runs right up against God’s commands is the conversion therapy ban that’s been passed in different Canadian municipalities. The gist of it is that pastors and Christian counselors could get in legal trouble for pointing homosexuals and transsexuals to God and trying to help them turn away from their sinful lifestyles. This ban looks like it’ll pass federally too. The government would be telling us to leave these troubled individuals alone. But we’d have to defy that order because our Greater Authority has told us to love our neighbors. Another example might be the Canadian government’s ban on corporal punishment for children under two. God has specifically given us a tool for nurturing and disciplining our children, and the government has specifically said that we can’t use it for the first two years.” “You want to spank newborns?” Owen put both of his hands up, and though he was smiling, his voice took on an insistent edge: “I’m not saying that, and I don’t remember when we first spanked our kids. But I am certain that at, say, 18 months, they sure benefited from it. But now, following God’s instructions on this point, we would risk having the State take our kids. That’s scary!” “Okay, good point. And bad joke on my part. I don’t have kids yet, so I haven’t really thought through spanking, but I think I’m mostly on board with what you’re saying here. I’ve answered a few of your questions, so let me ask you one: do you think there are other reasons we can disobey the government?” Another reason: the authority isn’t actually in authority “I do,” Owen said, “I gave the example before that it isn’t insubordinate for my son to ignore orders from you. He has to listen to orders from his parents, but that doesn’t mean he has to listen to orders from any and every parent. It’d be the same sort of situation if the Premier of Alberta started ordering around folks in Newfoundland. They wouldn’t listen, not because they are rebelling, but simply because the Premier of Alberta has no authority over them. Sometimes an authority isn’t actually in a position of authority…no matter what they might be claiming.” Zach nodded: “Okay, I’m with you so far.” “So let me ask you a question: in what ways is a government’s authority limited?” “Well, with your Premier of Alberta example, you’re showing that their authority can be limited by geography – it doesn’t go beyond their boundaries.” “Anything else?” Owen asked. “Well, I guess their authority is also limited by things like constitutions and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I’ve been reading about how John Carpay’s Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is appealing to the Charter to argue that the Alberta government exceeded its authority in their latest round of COVID restrictions. In the US, some churches are appealing to their country’s constitution to argue governors don’t have the authority to shut down church services. But while they’re winning some of those cases, they’re losing others.” “Sure,” Owen agreed, “but for our purposes here, what’s relevant is that Man’s authority can be limited by Man himself. We can write up laws that restrict what the government can do. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries that put the tightest restrictions on their government are ones with a Christian heritage. We remember Samuel’s warning about kings (1 Sam 8:10-22).” Spheres vs. chain of command “But,” he continued, “there’s another sort of restriction on government authority that we haven’t talked about yet. A Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, called it Sphere Sovereignty, and it’s the idea that God gave authority, not just to government, but to the family, and to the Church too. When John MacArthur’s church started meeting regularly again, in defiance of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s closure orders, the church issued a statement that appealed to this divvied-up notion of authority. Let me read you something from that statement: Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained. However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders. When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach. Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority… (Matthew 16:18-19; 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2).” “That’s a lot to take in,” Zach commented. “It is. But the gist of it is that the Grace Community Church was saying they weren’t actually defying the governor. They were arguing that whether the church opens or closes is under Church, and not State, authority.” “I think I get it,” Zach said. “They were saying that the authority that comes from God isn’t a chain of command with the State at the top and the Church and family somewhere underneath.” “Right. And while I think Grace Community is right, I’ll add that the Bible doesn’t make clear where exactly one sphere of authority ends and another begins. I think we’d both agree the State shouldn’t be dictating doctrine to a church, but do they have an interest in public health? And if so, would that give them the authority to close a church in pandemic circumstances? That’s what muddies things: these spheres of authority overlap. To give a different sort of example, it’s a family’s business to raise and educate their children, but if they were to abuse any of those children, then the State’s responsibility over justice would give them authority to intervene.” Charity Zach gave one last long draw on his beer before continuing. “I appreciate our conversation, but I’m not sure if it clarified or complicated things for me. So, let me put it to you plain: does a church have the authority to keep its doors open when the State orders them shut?” Owen gave a tug on his chin. “Would you be satisfied with an ‘I think so’?” “I guess I’ll have to be. But maybe I can finish us off with something I am sure about, and which I know we can both agree on?” When Owen gave a nod, Zach continued. “In all of this, we want to honor God, and if we’re less certain about how to do that in some ways, we know exactly how to do it in others. We know what God meant when He commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do unto others as we would want done to us. In our COVID/lockdown discussions, it means working at producing more light than heat by assuming the best of, and listening carefully and charitably to, brothers and sisters we might disagree with, just like we’re hoping to get the same back from them. That’s how we can have fruitful ‘sharpening’ discussions. ‘Doing unto others’ also means having patience with the authorities. Most don’t have God’s Word as their guide, so on the one hand, it’s no wonder they’re acting fearfully, and on the other, that might even be a reason for more, and not less charity towards them…even when they are overreaching.” To that, all Owen could add was a heartfelt, “Amen!”...

News, Theology

More birds than believers in church

This past Sunday I had the privilege of leading worship in my home congregation just outside of Hamilton, Ontario. I arrived about ten minutes before the service began. Everyone was already in church … all three of them! One elder, one brother taking care of sound and video, and one sister playing the piano. No more fellow believers joined us in the church building, although with a congregation of some 450 members, many were joining us from their homes via a livestream connection. Alas, we have been living with this reality for about ten Sundays in a row here in Ontario. It is much the same in many other – but not all – places. To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments around the world have restricted large public gatherings. In Ontario (at the time of writing), no more than five are permitted to gather publicly. That is why there were only four of us in church. But what about the birds? As I entered the building, one brother cheerfully quipped, “You have competition this morning. The birds are back.” You see, at present our congregation worships in a gymnasium. Resourceful feathered creatures somehow discovered a little gap somewhere up there in the roof. Are you also thinking of Psalm 84 in the Book of Praise? The sparrow finds a home to rest The swallow builds herself a nest By the volume of sound coming from that avian choir in the rafters, I would hazard an uneducated guess that there were more birds than believers in church this past Sunday. In Article 27 of the Belgic Confession, we affirm that the church is “a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers.” When more birds than believers have assembled in a church building on Sunday, we have reason to grieve. Caught between commands? At least three divine commandments intersect in this circumstance. 4th Commandment As part of the fourth commandment, we confess that we must “diligently attend the church of God to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian offerings to the poor” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 38). So long as you have a good Internet connection and your local congregation has livestreaming equipment, you can still see the preacher and hear the preaching quite well. Similarly, the minister can still lead us in public prayer, and by sending an e-transfer we can still give Christian alms. All of this is not nothing. But so much is missing as well. In places where the restrictions are more severe, it is well nigh impossible to administer the sacraments. We sing psalms and hymns in our homes, but it does not even come close to the uplifting experience of singing together with hundreds of fellow believers in a building that is acoustically alive. In short, did we “attend the church of God”? Well, sort of but not really. Psalm 122 rings in our ears and weighs down our hearts: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord,” not stay in our own houses. 5th Commandment At the same time, in the fifth commandment, the Lord requires us to respect and obey our governing officials. Consider the words of Romans 13:1-2 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Those words are both blunt and inspired. This command still applies when governing authorities are unjust or unwise. The apostle Peter wrote, “Be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Pet 2:18). But there is a limit to this, as well, for the same apostle said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). Do we have to break the fifth commandment and contravene the restrictions on public gatherings in order to keep the fourth commandment and assemble in church to worship God? 6th Commandment Answering that question is already complex, but now add the sixth commandment. This command not only prohibits murder but also calls us to “protect from harm as much as we can” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40). What now? If we fulfill the fourth commandment and attend the church of God, do we (potentially) break the sixth commandment by putting fellow believers, and by extension others with whom they may have contact, in harm’s way? We feel caught between the commands. Our consciences are hung up on the horns of a three-way dilemma. What is a sincere Christian to do? Some historical perspective As the Preacher teaches us, nothing is new under the sun (Eccl 1:10). Serious pandemics have afflicted the world before. For the sake of public health, governments have shut down church buildings before. For example, between 1576 and 1578, during the plague of Milan, fifteen percent of that city’s population died. At the peak of the infection curve, the city closed all “non-essential shops” and put into effect a “general quarantine,” which also meant that public worship services were not permitted.1 Sound familiar? The archbishop, a certain Carlo Borromeo, co-operated with local officials and organized the publication of booklets containing penitential Bible passages, prayers, and songs. These were then distributed, free of charge, to the citizens. At set times, when the church bell rang, everyone was to come to the doors and windows of their homes. Together the city recited prayers and sang songs. The cobbled streets of Milan, rather than the marbled nave of its cathedral, resounded with congregational singing. Can you imagine? Similarly, in the fall of 1918 the so-called Spanish flu ravaged Philadelphia. On October 3, the city officials closed all schools. On October 4, they closed all saloons, theaters, and churches as well. For the balance of the month, everyone lived through a complete lockdown, other than doing what was necessary to feed their families and care for the sick, the dying, and the dead. By the end of the month, though, the infection rate subsided and things opened up again. As a sure sign of a different era, “the first step in removing the ban allowed churches and synagogues to open,” although, at least in the case of the churches, “…without Sunday school.”2 History is interesting and instructive. We are certainly not the first generation to live through times like these. Still, history is not authoritative. The question remains: in the sight of our God, what are sincere Christians to do? Do not subdivide the commands Difficult circumstances can either push us apart or pull us together. Let us earnestly pray that it would be the latter. It is hard, though, to keep our minds simultaneously focussed on all the commands involved. One believer quickly zeroes in on the fourth commandment: God calls us to assemble for worship, therefore, we must assemble for worship. The heart of the next child of God, though, is gripped by the truth of the fifth commandment. God warns that if we resist the authorities he has put in place, we will incur judgment. Surely we need to take that seriously, don’t we? Then, yet another brother or sister in the Lord feels the burden of the sixth commandment, being concerned that he or she might seriously endanger someone else’s health. Asymptomatic transmission is a reality, after all. Different people emphasize different commands, and if they do it too aggressively, they may inadvertently push us apart from each other. We will need to have patience with each other and be mindful of each other’s consciences. Beyond that, though, be assured that there is no three-way dilemma in the Word of our God. Just as surely as Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), it cannot be sub-divided either. The whole law is fulfilled in one key word: love (Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14; Lord’s Day 2). Intertwined love for God and our neighbour will provide the unifying departure point for us all. Walk forward in love “I love the Lord” (Ps 116) and “I love your saints” (Ps 16) are the twin-engines of holy desire that propel us out of bed, into our cars, and on toward our church buildings twice a Sunday. Right? But that plush recliner in my family room is more comfortable than the oak pew in church, isn’t it? And an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is rather nice, too, isn’t it? The Lord can, and will, use the COVID-19 pandemic to refine our love-filled loyalty to him and burn away all dross of custom, superstition, or hypocrisy in our obedience of the fourth commandment. If our souls are yearning to be back in the courts of our God with our fellow believers (Ps 63), then our God is fulfilling his promise to take evil and turn it to our benefit. Next, holding the fourth and sixth commandments together is already familiar territory for us. I long to attend the church of God, but if I’m seriously sick with an infectious disease I’ll have to stay home or take other significant precautions so that I don’t harm others. In such a case I am not breaking the fourth commandment in order to keep the sixth. Why not? Because in God’s law love for him and love for the neighbour do not compete; instead, they complement. For example, in the OT when some of his own people had serious diseases, God himself quarantined them “outside the camp,” thereby also keeping them away from public worship (Lev. 13, 14). To be sure, these laws were more than a public health matter. They also involved other, deeper, spiritual lessons. But as a loving Father, our God also ensured that public worship gatherings would not become seedbeds for the spread of serious sickness. Under certain circumstances, then, loving both God and our neighbour means we may need to stay away from public worship. These biblical principles also apply as we deal with COVID-19. On the one hand, excessive fear of viruses should not stop us from assembling for worship. The Holy Spirit teaches us that the wise man will not be immobilized by unwarranted fear of lions on the road or, by extension, of viruses in the pews (Prov. 26:13). On the other hand, love for the neighbour and for our heavenly Father who upholds our neighbour’s health will compel us to exercise all due caution. In short, love and wisdom pave a path that holds the fourth and sixth commandments in harmony. Fulfilling the fifth commandment in these present circumstances is more challenging but not impossible. In the final words of his Institutes, John Calvin reminds us that government officials may well have to correct some of their fellow officials when they act unjustly or unwisely (Institutes 4.20.31). Faced with the double affliction of both plague and persecution, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, also recommended working through the “lower magistrates” in order to redirect “higher magistrates,” who may fail to uphold what is right and wise in the eyes of God. This approach fits well with Romans 13. In verses 1–2, we read how the Lord instituted “governing authorities,” not authority. The plural noun is significant. Not one single person in authority embodies all the wisdom required to rule, especially in challenging circumstances like COVID-19. If some governing officials are acting unwisely or unfairly toward the church, even if their intentions are noble, then believers can work with and through other officials in order to promote the necessary corrective re-balancing. In this way, we honour all the authorities in their God-given calling and in doing so, honour God himself. Again, love for the neighbour and love for God cohere rather than conflict. Thankfully, in some areas, we even have members of our Reformed congregation serving as government officials in town councils, provincial, and federal parliaments. Without denying the value of other efforts and initiatives, let us earnestly support and spur on these fellow believers, as well as any other elected representatives who will lend a sympathetic ear. The goal will be that, under the Lord’s blessing, as soon as it is safe to increase the size of public gatherings, the church will be the first in line to benefit, not the last. This approach also holds together the fourth and fifth and sixth commandments. May our God swiftly bring the day when the believers again far outnumber the birds in church. And may our chorus of congregational praise soon drown out their beautiful little chirps with a mighty sound that shakes the ground (Psalm 150, Book of Praise)! Endnotes 1) Chiu, Remi. “Singing on the Street and in the Home in Times of Pestilence: Lessons from the 1576–78 Plague of Milan,” in Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy, ed. Corry, Maya (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 28. 2) Stetler, Christina M. “The 1918 Spanish Influenza: Three Months of Horror in Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania History 84, no. 4 (2017): 477.  Dr. Jason Van Vliet is Principal and Professor of Dogmatics at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario. This article first appeared in Clarion and is reprinted here with permission.  ...

Theology

Bill, and The Brothers Karamazov, on the Problem of Evil

“All right, so this passage shows Jesus’ lordship and control over all creation.” Bill glanced at his watch. It was already 3:45 and his class started at 4:00. It was at least a 10-minute walk across the campus. “Are there any questions?” Bill hoped that the passage was clear enough to Victor, the only visitor at the Bible study. The group of four sat in silence staring at their Bibles briefly. Then Peter spoke up, “Well, there aren’t any questions, I guess we can close in prayer. Steve, could you close with us?” During the prayer, Bill felt his stomach tighten. The next two hours were going to be rough. As Steve finished, Bill added a few extra words asking God to strengthen him for what was coming. “Well, I’d love to stick around and talk, but I really gotta get going. My class starts in 10 minutes. See ya!” Bill walked briskly into the cold October air. The darkening dusk added to the tension in Bill’s body. He quickly ran through in his mind the topic for the Intellectual History seminar. He thought of whether he should just keep his mouth shut. “Maybe,” he thought, “maybe I should just go home and skip.” But then he remembered how many classes he’d already missed. It wasn’t an option. ***** In the seminar room, the prof and most of the students were already seated. The professor, Dr. Hamowy, was a short man, but he compensated for his stature with an antagonistic personality and sharp tongue. He gloried in debate and loved the thrill of the attack. Bill took his place at the end of the long table, opposite Hamowy. With two minutes left, Bill quickly reviewed the book to be discussed. A couple more students drifted in – it was time. “Okay, today we’re looking at Dostoevsky. You guys’ll like this. Always creates a good debate. Who’s giving the introduction? Miss Hogan? All right, go ahead.” Hogan launched into it. Bill had heard her talking with some of the other students and she mentioned something about going to a Lutheran church. Could she be a Christian? Bill listened intently. Not a word about Dostoevsky and Christianity. “Thanks, Miss Hogan, but that was rather superficial. I’m wondering, why didn’t you mention anything about Dostoevsky and Christianity?” Hogan’s face bleached. “Umm…I just didn’t think it was that important.” “Miss Hogan, did you even read the book?” “Sure, but I didn’t really see anything religious.” “Miss Hogan, next time you better do a closer reading of the book. If you’d thought about it or even done some research, you’d see we can’t understand this thinker apart from religion. Come on guys, get your act together.” The first part of the class was over. It was now completely dark outside. “Okay, let’s get the discussion going here. We’re especially interested in what Dostoevsky has to say about the problem of evil. You’ve read the book, so you should know that Dostoevsky approaches the problem religiously. Open your books to page 240 and we’ll start reading that second paragraph and go to the end of the following page. Mr. Kosinski, could you read it for us?” Bill opened his copy of The Brothers Karamazov and followed along. Ivan was complaining to his brother Alyosha: “People sometimes talk of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. I’ve collected a great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother…” Ivan went on to describe how this little girl had been horribly abused by her parents. He concluded by asking Alyosha if he would design the world in such a way that little children suffer so terribly. Kosinski stopped reading and looked up. Hamowy started the discussion. “Okay, what’d you guys think of this?” Silence. “Come on, somebody must be thinking in this room!” More silence. Bill felt his stomach tighten more. He leaned against the table and slightly pulsated back and forth with the rhythm of his thumping heart. One of the other students raised his hand. “Good, Mr. Bosley. You’d like to comment?” “Yeah, this book pretty much nails it right on. How could anybody believe in God when there’s so much evil in the world? Think of the Holocaust, all those Jews dying, where was God then? How could anyone believe in a powerful good God who could control all this evil, but doesn’t?” “Thank you, Mr. Bosley. Anyone else? Surely you don’t all agree with Mr. Bosley?” It was time for Bill to strike. He slowly raised up his hand, but Evans beat him to it. “Okay, Miss Evans, enlighten us.” “I agree. Believing in a good God in a world where there’s suffering is completely illogical. I don’t get all these god-freaks. Are they even thinking with their brains? We aren’t going to get anywhere in dealing with evil as long as those brain-dead ideas are around. We’d be better off with something like when we’re all god and we all work together.” “All right, thanks Miss Evans. There seems to be a consensus developing. What’s wrong with you guys? Mr. Gordon, I saw your hand. What do you think?” Finally, Bill had his opportunity. “It intrigues me that everyone agrees there’s such a thing as evil and wickedness.” Bill’s heart beat faster and harder and his voice trembled. “I’d like to just ask a question to all of you: can we all agree that sexually abusing children is absolutely immoral?” Most students nodded their head in agreement. Only Bagchee didn’t. “Mr. Bagchee, you disagree with Gordon? Why?” “Well, there may be some societies where adults having sex with children is completely normal. In my country, in some of the cultures, it was at one time custom to make mothers sleep with their boys. In other cultures, teenage girls must be deflowered by tribal leaders to prepare for their arranged marriage.” Hogan couldn’t restrain herself. “I think that’s completely disgusting! Sexual abuse is wrong no matter what!” Dr. Hamowy smiled as the class finally heated up. “Miss Evans, you have something to add?” “Yeah, Subhash you can say that about your country or other cultures, but what if part of their culture was to smash their children’s head against rocks while sexually abusing them, would that be okay too? And what if it was you or your child?” Bagchee shrugged. “Mr. Gordon, where’d you want to go with this? “Well, pretty much everyone agrees there’s an absolute moral rightness or wrongness to certain things, like sexually abusing children or brutally murdering them.” Bill’s voice was quivering again. “But when you ask how can there be a God with so much evil in the world, you’ve missed the hidden assumption in your question – that there is such a thing as evil. And the fact that you get upset about evil in the world shows that in your hearts you know there is such a thing as absolute good and evil. But when you deny the God of Christianity, you deny the possibility of there even being absolute right and wrong. Apart from God, morality is an individual or cultural matter, and like Subhash’s examples, sexually abusing children could conceivably be acceptable. But we’ve agreed that it’s absolutely not. When you ask the question, you’re stuck. You’ve betrayed yourself and the real nature of your problem with Christianity.” “Umm, thanks Mr. Gordon. Okay, what’d the rest of you think of those comments?” Kosinksi leapt in again. “Yeah, I think Bill’s wrong. You’ve got a contradiction in your idea here. You say God is good. You say God is powerful, right?” Bill nodded. “But you say evil exists! You’ve got a contradiction, ‘cause if God was all-good and all-powerful, there’d be no bad stuff. So, ya see, Christianity isn’t so true after all.” Bill thought carefully for a moment. “Joe, you just said God is all-good and I completely agree with that – it’s found in the Bible. His character defines right and wrong. God is all-good and because I’m a Christian, I look at everything in the light of that. And so when I see evil, I can be consistent by inferring God has a morally good reason for the evil we see around us. Any evil we see must somehow fit with God’s goodness. Look at Jesus for example. Jesus was crucified. It was an act of evil – he was 100% innocent. But the cross fit in with God’s good plans to rescue those who’d believe in him. God therefore has a good reason for the wickedness in the world and there’s no contradiction. It all fits.” Bill took a long deep breath and carried on. “But within the non-Christian way of looking at the world, you can’t justify your contradiction between having absolute moral standards and not having an absolute source for those standards. If all we are is ooze, what difference does it make if one glob of ooze sexually abuses another glob of ooze? Who cares? Only with Christianity can absolute standards of good and evil have any meaning. And I think that was the point Dostoevsky was trying to make too.” “Okay, thanks Mr. Gordon. Anyone have anything to say? Mr. Bosley?” “Yeah, this is stupid. What about the influence of Dostoevsky on feminist scholarship?” ***** The rest of the seminar rambled in inanities. Bill’s heart rate and blood pressure were still coming down 20 minutes later when the class ended. As he got up to leave, he tried to make eye contact with some of the other students. He made his way out and walked down the hall of the history department. Hogan came up behind him and stopped him. “Bill, I really liked all those things you said. That was really good.” “Thanks.” Bill walked away wondering why no one ever spoke up in class to support him. As he stepped out into the chilly darkness, he still felt the aching of his chest and the tightness in his stomach. The only thing not bothering him was his conscience. Dr. Bredenhof blogs at yinkahdinay.wordpress.com where this first appeared....

Theology

Is it real corporate worship? - a parable

In this time of pandemic, Christians are carrying on a vigorous discussion about the character of corporate worship. When many if not most of the congregation members are watching online, can we really say that we are gathered as the Body of Christ, worshipping Him in corporate worship? I’ve read many of the arguments for and against, and I tend to agree with all of them. My position is basically this: yes, we are gathered for corporate worship. At the same time, it is only a pale imitation of how corporate worship should be. Some speak quite forcefully against calling a live-streamed service real corporate worship, calling it only a “pale imitation.” Others argue quite forcefully that live-streaming is real, corporate worship; the congregation is gathered together in the building and over the internet, and together the Body comes into the presence of the Lord and worships. It may be pale (less than desirable), but it’s not an imitation: it is real worship. A real imitation As I said, in a sense I side with both.  I would like to insist on maintaining the word “imitation.” The word “imitation,” derived from a Latin root, conveys the idea of “copy.” I think of what the letter to the Hebrews says about the temple and the sacrificial system. They were “copies” of the real thing. The real Holy of Holies is in heaven. The temple was a pale imitation of the real thing. But it was the best that was available until Jesus came, died, rose, and ascended, opening up for us a new and living way beyond the veil, past the very real cherubim (not the gold pale imitations), into the very throne room of God. I would argue that something can be a pale imitation, but can at the same time be real, in the sense that it is the best we have available at the moment. So how can live-streamed worship be real, and at the same time a pale imitation? Let me tell you a parable which might convey how these two things might be true at the same time. The parable of the packed and pollinated country wedding Imagine a wedding going on in a country church. The bride’s cousin has unfortunately come down with a bad case of allergies, and is sneezing a lot. The church auditorium is very small and the cousin doesn’t want to sit amongst the guests and sneeze on them continuously, nor does she want to ruin the video with the sounds of her sneezes. So she stands in a separate room, with the door slightly ajar, and she can more or less see the wedding ceremony from a safe distance.  She’s thankful to be there, and to witness the marriage. But it doesn’t feel quite right: she doesn’t sense that she’s participating fully in the event, because she’s alone in a separate room. She has trouble hearing everything and she has a hard time joining in with the singing.  Meanwhile, the bride’s brother has a large family. Their flight was delayed and their rental car took quite a bit longer to arrange than they had thought. They arrived at the church building only to discover that all of the seats are already filled. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, so they find themselves obliged to stand outside the building by an open window and try to participate as best as they can. (They had considered standing in a separate room, but there was a lady in there sneezing away). This family has to crowd around the little window, and, in fact, take turns peeking in to see the ceremony which they can more or less hear. It’s certainly not what they had imagined when they planned their trip to see the wedding of their sister and aunty.  Is the cousin really at the wedding? Are the brother and his wife and children really at the wedding? Yes, they are. They are there, they are witnessing the vows, they are participating in the event, they are trying their best to sing along.  At the same time, their experience is really a pale imitation of what being at a wedding should be. They are there, but they’re not there. They feel one with the gathered group of family, friends, and fellow believers, but at the same time they feel separate. Now, is this a real wedding? It certainly is!  Is it only a real wedding for the people sitting in the pews? Certainly not!  The cousin in the separate room, and the brother and his family standing outside by the window, are witnessing and participating in a real wedding. Real but not optimal I would suggest that when in our Sunday worship, the Bride comes into the holy presence of the Bridegroom, and their vows of covenant love are renewed and celebrated, this is a real Wedding. It is real worship. It is real for the people who are physically there, and it is real for the people who are straining to participate through “a door ajar, or an open window,” or, in other words, through an online connection. It’s real participation in real worship.  But it is certainly not optimal. For those obliged to “look through the window,” it is a pale imitation of the experience they long to have: to be physically present in the gathered assembly of God’s people, singing and participating physically as the Bride communes with the Bridegroom. Addressing one concern Some are concerned that if we say participation via live-stream is considered real participation in real worship, then once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, some people will say it doesn’t matter if they stay home and watch the church service instead. I believe this concern is unwarranted.  Think again of those in the wedding parable, and the one obliged to participate from a distance because of a health condition. God knows the heart. There is no negligence or lack of commitment when a child of God is obliged to watch the live stream because they have to stay home for a lawful reason.  Think of the family watching through the window. They are forced to do so by the circumstances. Everyone will understand this. If, however, there are lots of pews open in the building, but the brother and his family insist on standing outside and looking through the window, this would be at the very least rather strange, if not offensive.  The same goes for participating in worship via livestream. We do this reluctantly because we are obliged by the circumstances, namely the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. In a normal state of affairs, however, someone staying home to “watch” church of their own volition, when this is not imposed on them as a necessity, would constitute “despising the Word and the sacraments” and reveal a heart not committed to the Lord, His people, and His worship. Conclusion Is participating in public worship via livestream really worship? Are we really worshipping God together as a gathered church? The answer, during this pandemic, is “certainly!”  It may be a pale imitation of the type of gathered congregational worship we are used to, but given the circumstances, it is the very best we can do. And because it is the very best we can do, given the restrictions, we can be certain that in Christ the gathered congregation is certainly meeting with God in real corporate worship. Rev. Ken Wieske is the pastor of the St. Albert Canadian Reformed Church....

1 2 3