Christian education, Theology
Why biblical poetry matters
Skim through any modern Bible and you will notice something peculiar: many pages are laid out as poetry, with appropriate spacing and indents. But have you ever wondered what makes these verses poetic?
For most people, this subject remains an enigma, and some will wonder why they should even care. Poetry seems like the wrapping around a present, or the envelope for a card — superfluous and largely decorative. It is the message that is important, and paying attention to the form may be a distraction.
Of course, for a believer that should be a flimsy argument. Surely God loves beauty and complexity (Gen 1:31, Psalm 139:14), and although beauty is fleeting (Prov. 31:30), that is no excuse to ignore it.1 It does not make sense when Christians stand in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or we all hang the same poem about footprints on our walls, but we cannot be bothered to learn how the Psalms were composed.
Beautiful in any language
The astonishing thing about biblical poetry is that it generally translates into any language. The principal technique is not a matter of meter or rhyme: it has to do with the structure of the lines. In most cases, two or more lines run parallel to each other. Consider Psalm 122:7:
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.
You can see that the terms run parallel. Peace and security mirror each other, as do the walls and citadels. The name for this type of poetry is Hebrew Parallelism. In what follows, we’ll explore how this poetic technique works and why it matters.
Robert Lowth’s rediscovery of Parallelism
It was the Anglican Bishop Robert Lowth who in the 18th century rediscovered Hebrew Parallelism. For centuries, Christians had been confused about how best to describe biblical poetics. According to Lowth, Hebrew parallelism typically follows one of three patterns:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
The example we just looked at is a form of synonymous parallelism. In such cases, the same idea is repeated in similar language. One of the more famous examples of consistent synonymous parallelism is Psalm 114:
1 When Israel came out of Egypt,
Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
3 The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
4 the mountains leaped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
5 Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Why, Jordan, did you turn back?
6 Why, mountains, did you leap like rams,
you hills, like lambs?
7 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turned the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of water.
In this psalm, every verse consists of a mirroring of terms. Lowth felt that parallelism might be compared to the way two choirs can sing back and forth — a type of chant known as antiphony. Lowth speculated that the Jews might have incorporated something similar in their worship. Think of Psalm 136, where the refrain “His love endures forever” is a repeated response.
Lowth’s second type, antithetic parallelism, involves a sharp contrast. It is particularly common in the book of Proverbs:
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22)
The poor plead for mercy,
but the rich answer harshly. (Prov. 18:23)
The idea is that when we reflect on such contrasts, we can grow in wisdom.
Finally, Lowth used synthetic parallelism as a catch-all category for anything that is not synonymous or antithetic. Synthetic parallelism typically involves a progression of ideas, so that one thing follows another. Take this passage from Psalm 84:
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
While the end of verse 6 may contain an element of synonymous parallelism, these verses are more about developing an idea. In keeping with the focus on pilgrimage, the emphasis is on movement.
Two of Lowth’s examples of synthetic parallelism eventually came to have their own names. The first is now usually called staircase or climactic parallelism. Psalm 93:3-4 provides a dramatic example:
3 The seas have lifted up, Lord,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the Lord on high is mighty.
The repetition of phrases (like a staircase) creates a crescendo that builds to a climax. In this passage, we can imagine the waves growing in size!
Another type of synthetic parallelism is commonly called numerical parallelism. This is a poetic use of counting, something that is used to great effect in Amos 1:
3 For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not relent.
The same device occurs four more times in the rest of the chapter.
The Sharpening Theory
Robert Lowth established the basics of Hebrew Parallelism, yet his simple categories were not beyond criticism. Scholars objected that the synthetic category was ill-defined, that the term parallelism may imply too much similarity between the lines, and that parallel structures are not exclusive to poetry, but can be found elsewhere in the Bible as well.
The most forceful critique came in 1981 from James Kugel, the author of The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History.3 Kugel developed what we might call the “Sharpening Theory” of Hebrew Parallelism. To understand what he meant, it is good to reflect on the nature of proverbs.
Proverbs are a bit like riddles. When someone says, “the apple does not fall far from the tree,” it takes us a moment to figure out what that really means. A proverb makes us stop and think. James Kugel points out that in the Bible this quality is sometimes described as a certain sharpness. A proverb pricks our conscience and makes us reflect on the proper way to act. Unfortunately, the fool feels the prick, but does not benefit from it:
Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (Proverbs 26:9)
If we take these observations about proverbs and apply them to Hebrew Parallelism, then we see that the parallel lines also force us to slow down and consider their relationship. At first, we might observe mostly repetition, but a closer look reveals that there is more to the picture. The unique features of each line stand out in sharp relief. This makes reading the Bible exciting. The following verse provides a good example:
Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for;
through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided. (Proverbs 16:6)
Is the same thought expressed twice? Not really. Not only do the lines mention different, yet related actions (love and faithfulness; the fear of the Lord), but the verse makes us contemplate the connection between atonement and avoidance of sin. Atonement might make up for past transgressions, whereas avoidance is about future temptations. In this way, the proverb creates a complex picture that encourages the righteous to live wisely.
James Kugel further pointed out that Jewish rabbis who interpreted the Bible preferred to focus on the differences between parallel lines.
In the Jewish tradition, the word Talmud refers to a variety of rabbinic texts that came to supplement the Old Testament books. After the return from exile in Babylon (6th century BC), the Jews increasingly developed an oral tradition that interpreted the Torah (the five books of Moses) and added further regulations and customs. Written compilations of the Talmud stem from as early as the third century AD. The act of interpreting the Talmud and the Bible came to be known as Midrash. This word refers to both rabbinic interpretation and an actual written collection of such interpretations.
Rabbis who practiced Midrash (especially during medieval times) often came up with ingenious ways to contrast poetic lines that seemed to say the same thing. Let’s look at a couple of examples that Kugel provides. First, we read in Genesis 21:1:
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised .
Sounds the same. But at least one commentator suggested that the last “he” might refer to Abraham. A couple of verses earlier (Gen. 20:17), Abraham had prayed on behalf of Abimelek:
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again.
Taking this line into consideration, Gen. 21:1 might be interpreted to mean:
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he, Abraham, had spoken to God about in his prayer, namely to provide fertility.
Suddenly the two lines become quite different in meaning. The second pronoun he now refers to Abraham. Here is another example, from the instructions for Passover celebrations:
Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread. (Deuteronomy 16:3)
A midrashic reading might note that these are two different commandments—a negative and a positive one. Not only must bread with yeast not be eaten, but unleavened bread must be eaten.
It is in part because medieval rabbis were so focused on the differences that a full understanding of Hebrew Parallelism was lost during this time and had to be recovered by scholars such as Robert Lowth. At the same time, the Midrash does remind us not to assume that parallelism is always about exact similarity. The differences are important!
A dynamic movement
Kugel’s Sharpening Theory has us examine each set of parallel lines on its own terms. Instead of reducing parallelism to a few main types, we look for a wide variety of features. For each verse, the question is, how does the second line (B) extend the first (A)? To use Kugel’s wording, it’s not “A=B” but “A, and what’s more, B.” Instead of Lowth’s three main categories, we can now have any number of relationships between A and B. It is up to each reader to meditate carefully on the subtle similarities and differences between the lines.
The scholar Robert Alter, expanding on the work of James Kugel, provides a great description of this relationship between A and B. He talks about a “dynamic movement.”4 The second line should never seem predictable or merely repetitive. There’s something captivating about the way the thought is extended. For Alter, the second line often includes an intensification or focusing of the first thought. You can compare it to seeing something and then getting out the binoculars or microscope to take a closer look. The tricolon (a triple parallelism) in Psalm 100:3 provides a great example:
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Each line zooms in a little. Each line makes the thought more specific. This dynamic movement between the lines requires our participation. As readers, we are drawn into the text.
If that sounds like a lot of work, then recall that Hebrew Parallelism is also quite slow-moving and unhurried. Each idea is expressed in multiple ways. The effect is somewhat like hearing a choir sing in a cathedral, repeating phrases and letting their voices echo through the cavernous space. This is not to say that an Old Testament psalm is like a Bach aria, but that in both cases the speed and cadence is measured and controlled. Important phrases and ideas come back in new form, so that we do not only listen for individual lines, but we also gradually gain a sense of the whole piece.
The big picture
Speaking of the composition as a whole, the final step is to put it all together. It is one thing to spot parallel structures, but it requires more practice to discern how the lines work together.
For example, Psalm 133 has quite a neat and tidy structure, with two similes (verses 2 and 3a) framed by an opening statement (1) and a conclusion (3b):
1 How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!
2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
Verse 2 is a great example of what Robert Lowth called staircase parallelism. This technique is all about movement and intensification. Just as the oil runs down the high-priest’s beard, so the lines flow on and on. The liquid imagery is extended in the comparison to dew. Clearly, the author of Psalm 133 thought carefully about best to match the form of the poem to the content. The poetry helps to express the message. In other words, not only should brothers live in harmony, but the psalm itself has to have a sense of “unity.”
In addition to Hebrew Parallelism (the main feature of biblical poetry), God’s Word displays many other poetic techniques (personification, chiasmus, etc.). For a long time, Christians have been content to ignore these features, whereas in reality the beauty of the Bible provides an incredible appeal. Why is a passage such as Isaiah 53 so moving? Why do we memorize Psalm 23 or 103? The poetry in these passages does not detract from the truth of scripture, but makes it resonate in our hearts. I imagine many conversion stories also include an element of awe at the sublimity of Holy Scripture. Mission work is enhanced by bringing out those qualities that make the Bible the Great Book.
I would therefore encourage Christian parents and educators to know the basics of biblical poetry, not only for their own appreciation, but also so they can teach children to marvel at the beauty of the Bible. Psalm 19 describes how the heavens “pour forth speech” (verse 3), before adding, paradoxically, “They have no speech, they use no words; / no sound is heard from them.” Creation can speak of the glory of God, without using actual words. Indeed, we teach children that Nature displays God’s goodness and faithfulness. But Psalm 19 points out that God’s Word (the “law”) is likewise worth meditating on, and it does contain words and speech. The “precepts of the Lord” are “sweeter than honey” and give “light to the eyes.” The fact that the Psalmist used paradoxes, metaphors, and parallelism to describe his delight in the Word can only mean that biblical poetry is an equally nourishing and eye-opening experience. So, take the time to study and appreciate the poetry of the Bible, not just to know why some lines are indented on the page, but to truly savour the divine artistry of the Word.
Dr. Conrad van Dyk is Professor of English at Concordia University of Edmonton, where he teaches everything from medieval literature to children’s classics. Recently he has started creating online literary courses from a Christian perspective (and for a reasonable price). The very first course is a detailed introduction to biblical poetry which you can find at LitCompanion.com. Portions of this course have been used in this article. He attends Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church in Edmonton.
1) Quotations from the Bible are from the NIV, with one exception. For Psalm 133, I have reintroduced the word “brothers.”
2) I have used G. Gregory’s English translation (1753) of Robert Lowth’s On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, which is freely available online.
3) See James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (Yale UP, 1981). The examples of Midrash are taken from Kugel, pp. 98-106; the discussion of how A and B relate can be found on p. 8. Kugel’s ideas were developed by S. E. Gilllingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford UP, 1994), who suggests that we tend to see three patterns of parallelism, i.e., A=B (comparison and contrast), A>B (the second line is subordinated to the first), and A<B (where the second line develops the first, for example through intensification or comparison). A summary of Gillingham’s approach can be found in William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 289ff. Personally, I prefer Kugel’s less formulaic approach, where each set of lines is treated on its own terms.
4) Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985), p. 10.
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A secular defense of the Sabbath, and how it falls short
Fast Company is a secular business magazine, as likely to pass on presentation tips from industry leaders as it is to pass on marketing tips from drag queens so this isn't the first place you'd look to find a defense of Sabbath rest. But there it was in a Sept. 14, 2018 piece titled: "Let's bring back the Sabbath as a radical act against the always-on economy." The author, William Black does overlook the core of Sabbath rest – there's nothing in this article about taking our rest in the Lord, and coming together to worship Him. But because God's Law is written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15), even unbelievers can recognize that Law's validity, at least in part. A practical case for the Sabbath Black began his article by pointing to the religious roots of the commandment, but he certainly wasn't making a religiously-based appeal for it. Implicit in his argument was that, despite how "the commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism," there was still something radical and vital about it. "When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive – the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough – the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough." In a materialistic world, whose gods include "career advancement" and "more take-home pay" there's no end of the work that can be done to earn the gods' favor. Enough is never enough, because extra work can help you advance further and faster, and help you earn more. In that kind of world, the idea of taking one day off every week is not only radical, but downright blasphemous – such a break can only be enjoyed by those who recognize the materialistic gods are not worth giving our full devotion. Black continues by sharing how Sabbath rest was a benefit for the whole community: "The fourth commandment presents a od who, rather than demanding ever more work, insists on rest. The weekly Sabbath placed a hard limit on how much work could be done and suggested that this was perfectly all right; enough work was done on the other six days. And whereas the pharaoh relaxed while his people toiled, Yahweh insisted that the people rest as Yahweh rested: 'For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.' "The Sabbath, as described in Exodus and other passages in the Torah, had a democratizing effect. Yahweh’s example – not forcing others to labor while Yahweh rested – was one anybody in power was to imitate. It was not enough for you to rest; your children, slaves, livestock, and even the 'aliens' in your towns were to rest as well. The Sabbath wasn’t just a time for personal reflection and rejuvenation. It wasn’t self-care. It was for everyone." While Black repeatedly mentions the Jewish origins of Sabbath rest, his is still a secular case for the command. He's touting the practical benefits, and not that this is God's authoritative command. Black may or may not be a Christian himself, but his approach – praising God's Law, without praising the Lawmaker – is one Christians commonly take. Whether it's abortion, sex-ed curriculums, or refusing to bake cakes for same-sex marriages, Christians regularly argue for the godly position while avoiding any mention of our God. Without God the argument fails We do that for tactical reasons – the world's not interested in God, so they'll just ignore us if we start any argument with His Name, right? But the problem is, all of God's Law – every position we're arguing for – stands on Him. So when we try to defend His Law without any mention of Him, it will, ultimately, fail. To put it another way, this not only robs God of the glory that He is due – God's people refusing to mention our Lord's Name does rob Him of His due – it isn't even an effective tactic. Take abortion as an example. Christians will argue that abortion is wrong because killing babies is wrong. And because God's Law is written on everyone's hearts, that's an argument the other side will concede. But they'll dispute that the unborn are babies and question how something so small and immature can really be of the same worth as much larger, already-born human beings. So the real argument is not, "Is killing wrong?" but "Where does our worth come from?" Only God provides a satisfactory answer to that question: our worth comes not from any abilities we have, but is intrinsic in being made in His Image (Gen. 1:26-27, Gen. 9:6). That's why an unborn baby has value, no matter how small, and doesn't gain worth as it gains in abilities. This intrinsic value is also why a disabled adult isn't of lesser worth even though he can do less, and why an elderly adult doesn't lose their worth as they lose some of their abilities. Our worth comes not from what we can do, but from in Whose Image we are made. Even as the world rejects this explanation, they can offer no viable alternative. Why do they believe we – at least those of us who have already been born – are of equal worth? Where does the basis for equality come from? Some are bigger, or smarter, or faster, or more inventive, or more artistic, and some are less so – in every which way, no two human beings are exactly alike, so on what basis would we ever talk about equality? There is no worldly justification for it. The world holds to equality, but can't offer an explanation for it. But we can. Only God makes sense of the world Isn't that something we should be pointing out? That's God makes the world make sense? It's no different with Sabbath rest – any argument for it needs to be built on God, and if it isn't, the argument will fall short. In his article Black speaks of an economy that embraces Sabbath rest as being one "driven, not by anxiety, but by...enoughness." And he contrasts that with our current 24-7 "anxious striving for more." Black wants our society to make the switch; he wants us to leave the "always-on economy" and start trusting in "enoughness." But what Black can't explain is on what basis his secular audience can confidently make that leap. Is there always going to be enough? Can we really depend on that? His readers will know that in some spots on our planet there isn't enough right now. They'll also know that if our economy takes a downward turn, there might not be enough here too. That's why the secular soul always has a reason to strive for more – so they can build a better cushion against whatever difficulties the future might bring. In short, as much sense as Sabbath rest makes – as great as the practical benefits are for mental, physical, emotional, and even relational, health – it doesn't make near the same sense without the Sabbath Lord. The world always has reason to fear the future, so they always have reason to continue striving anxiously. It is only the Christian, trusting in the Lord, who can not only take a break each week from the constant demands of work, but who can take rest where it can truly be found: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). That the secular argument for the Sabbath doesn't stand up on its own isn't a reason to give up on the practical arguments for obeying God's law. But it is a reason to start with God – to start with Him as our cornerstone – and build up from there....
The Bible on angels
Who are those mysterious angelic heavenly beings who live in the presence of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe? Can we know more about them? Yes, certainly! When we carefully collect the Scriptural data, we receive a marvelous insight into the world of angels – we can learn a good deal about these wonderful beings. Yet angelology has been frequently dismissed as futile speculation with no practical relevance for the Christian life and mission. And those who write about it at any length are said to divert believers from the weightier matters of the Christian faith. Let's be clear: this is no indulgence into New Age escapist fascination with spiritual beings. Rather, it is to see how God is at work in His world. The task of angels is to direct us beyond them to God. That said, it is true that undue concentration upon the angelic world does distracts us from Him. In this context, John Calvin's rule of modesty for his treatment of angels is worth noting: Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God's Word. Furthermore, we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Created by God We know that the angelic world is real, not because we have verified it in experience but because God has said it. The heavenly realms in Scripture are not planets, dead stars, moon rocks or planetary rings, they are personal beings populating the universe. They are unseen spirits having different ranks, attributes and tasks. The physical as well as the spiritual world owes its origin to the Triune God. Through His Son God made the universe (Heb. 1:2). "Through him all things were made," writes the apostle John (1:3). The apostle Paul declares the same truth, "all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...were created by him (Jesus Christ) and for him" (Col. 1:16). The most extended passage on angels, Hebrews 1:5-2:9, makes a special point of establishing that our Lord is superior to them. Because they were created through Him and for Him, they belong to Him. He is their head and the center of their world. Little is said about the origin of angels in the Bible. All that it says about the creation of angels is that "God commanded and they were created" (Ps. 148:2,5). The angelic world then is an enormous gathering of solitary, heavenly beings. They are neither male nor female. They neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). They don't have offspring. Their number is complete (Matt.22:30). They are not eternal as they have a beginning. And they are not omnipresent as God alone is everywhere present. Theologians have speculated when the angels were created, but not one has arrived at a definitive answer. We just don't know. Louis Berkhof argues that no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and earth. And he states that the only safe statement seems to be that the angels were created before the seventh day. But I believe it is not too bold to argue that heaven with its inhabitants were complete at the very beginning of creation. Even before the creation of the material universe there was a vast world of angels and they still exist today. They sang praises unto God when they saw the wonder of God's handiwork. As God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?...On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"(Job 38:4-7) Angels then existed prior to man. But Man is the crown of creation (cf. Ps. 8). The Number of Angels Do we really need to know the exact number of angels? No, the very existence of angels testifies already to the greatness of our God. But we can consider some of the popular notions. The Pharisees, for example, seem to have an exaggerated view of their numbers. It was said among them, "that a man, if he threw a stone over his shoulder or cast away a broken piece of pottery, asked pardon of any spirit that he might possibly have hit it so doing." Some medieval theologians claimed to know the exact number: one said 266,613,336, after the 133,306,668 followed Lucifer and fell; another said that there was an angel behind every blade of grass. But the Bible does not give us definite figures. We are told that there is an enormous company of heavenly beings. Daniel 7:10 says 10,000 times 10,000 stood before the throne of God, which would amount to 100,000,000, but the point here is to speak of the vast array, rather than the particular amount. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of the city of the living God and an innumerable company of angels. We also know a great company of heavenly hosts appeared to the shepherds, praising God for the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:13). After His arrest in Gethsemane Jesus told Peter that His heavenly Father could put twelve legions of angels at His disposal. (Matt. 26:53). Again, this does not mean that Jesus said that there were literally 120,000 angels. Jesus used the number to tell Peter that He had myriads of angels who were ready to come to His aid. Fallen Angels So innumerable hosts of perfect angels follow their Creator. But not all angels remained faithful to Him. Satan, the mightiest of the angels, became proud. He led a revolt in heaven and was cast out and innumerable fallen angels entered the service of the wicked Deceiver (Matt.25:41; 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 9:11; 12:7-10). Their punishment? The apostle Peter said that God did not spare His angels when they sinned "but sent them to hell" (2 Pet.2:4). Jude notes that the rebel angels "did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day" (vs. 6). When we consider fallen angels, we can also take comfort in the presence of perfect angels. Because they were in the presence of Satan before his fall, they know the powers of the demonic better than any human being. They understand their wicked ways. Shakespeare, the astute observer of human nature, was well aware of Satan's pride and tempting powers. "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition; By that sin fell angels; how can man then, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it?...How wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors!... When he falls, he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again" (Henry VIII). The evil spirits and their leader are constantly opposing the advance of the Kingdom of God. One of the greatest missionaries of all times, Ludwig Nommensen (1834-1918), settled among the Toba Bataks, in Northern Sumatra. Central to his belief was that by faith in the living Lord, Christians share in Christ's victory over sin, death, and Satan. Nommensen was very sensitive to the reality of the spirit world. He taught fellow missionaries, "After one has come to understand the people and to be understood by them, one has to begin with the preaching of the Gospel in having a twofold work, namely to pull down the bulwark of Satan and to build up the house of truth." The Nature of Angels Although there are abundant references to angels in the Bible, they are not meant to inform us about their dazzling nature. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, His actions, and how He works out the plan of salvation. What then can we say about them? They are not omnipresent. They are not restricted by time or space. Angels are without bodies and hence invisible. And although they are pure spirits, they can take on human form. We see this happening when two angels came to Lot in the form of men to tell them to get out of Sodom (Gen.19). Also, on the day of the resurrection, the women who went to the tomb saw two men "in clothes that gleamed like lightning" (Luke 24:4). Matthew records that an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow (Matt.28:2). Angels are endowed with great intelligence (2 Sam. 14:20). Since they are in the presence of God they have a far clearer view of and deeper insight into the meaning of all that happens in this world than we do. Our knowledge is always limited, even in our age of computers, Internet and other amazing technological advances. But angels do not act on their own; they function and intervene in the world only as God commands. Their amazing knowledge and power, like that of all other creatures, are dependent on and derived from Him. They are capable of great feats of strength, whether it is in slaying more than 180,000 in one evening, or setting an apostle free from prison (2 Kings 19:35; Acts 12). When the Bible speaks about heaven and earth, it often links angels and human beings. Our Lord taught us to pray, "Our Father in heaven... your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"(Matt.6: 9f). The presence of angels encourages Christians to obey God. As the angels carry out God's will in heaven so should we do the same on earth. The third request in the Lord's Prayer means, says the Heidelberg Catechism, "Help everyone carry out (his or her work)... as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven"(Q&A 124). The angels do more than sing; they also speak. Paul said to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). But we must not spend time in speculating about the nature of the language which angels use in communicating with one another – this is an exercise in futility. The question is, are we ready to listen when an angel addresses us? God sent an angel to prepare for Israel the way to the promised land. He told His people, "Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him"(Ex. 23:21). When an angel spoke to Zechariah the priest, and foretold the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah did not trust his message. He said, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years"(Luke 1:18). There is always the tragic possibility that the voice of an angel will come to us but we refuse to listen. Conclusion With joy the angels obey the will of God (Ps. 103:21). Our loving God sends His angels to support His people on their often arduous journey to the heavenly city. From the throne room in heaven He commands His angels. They do His bidding. After his miraculous rescue from prison, Peter said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches" (Acts 12:11). The angels before whom Zechariah, the virgin Mary, and the shepherd fell to the ground in fear and awe are actually our unseen helpers. As we mature in our faith, we will increasingly see the beauty and wonder of our Lord's mighty work on our behalf, and gain in our understanding of the role of His ministering angels in our lives. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....
Science - Environment, Theology
Catastrophic global warming? A brief biblical case for skepticism
The media tells us that the question is settled, there is a 97% consensus, and that anyone who has questions is a “denier,” likened to those who are either so foolish, or malicious, as to deny the reality of the Holocaust. But there are reasons to question. And while climate science might be beyond most of us, God has given us another means – a far more reliable means – of discerning truth, via His Word. Gender: the Bible shows the way Sometimes it doesn’t take much Bible study to be able to discern truth from error, and that’s certainly true in today’s gender debate. Young children are being surgically mutilated and hormonally sterilized and yet the government, doctors, psychologists, and media are applauding. While it might not be at 97% yet, the consensus is growing such that fines are being issued, teachers fired, students expelled, and Twitter mobs set loose on any who disagree. Despite the pressure, few Christians are being fooled, though that might be due as much to the newness of the debate as it is that Evangelicals are turning to their Bibles for guidance. But if they do open His Word it won’t take a believer long to figure out God’s position. In Genesis 1:27 we learn it is God, not Man, who determines our gender: “So God created Man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Population: following the Bible would have saved tens of millions The overpopulation crisis has a longer history to it and, consequently, many more Christians have bought into it. Since the 1950s we’ve been hearing that sometime soon the world’s population will outstrip the planet’s resources. In his 1969 book The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich warned: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” You would think that by now it would be easy to see that these overpopulation fears were mistaken. As economist Arthur Brooks has noted, what’s happened is the very opposite of Ehrlich’s dire prediction: “From the 1970s until today the percentage of people living at starvation’s door has decreased by 80%. Two billion people have been pulled out of starvation-level poverty.” Yet the overpopulation hysteria has never gone away. And the damage it has done has been on par with that of a Hitler or Stalin – tens of millions have been killed. Under threat of this crisis China implemented their infamous one-child policy, with its fines and forced abortions for couples who tried for two. And the deaths weren’t limited to China; overpopulation fears were used to justify the push for legalized abortion in countries around the world. Murdering your own children wasn’t cold and selfish anymore; now it was a woman doing her part to save the planet. Christians opposed abortion, of course, but some believers started questioning whether overpopulation concerns might be correct. Maybe God’s call to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) was just a temporary directive that we’ve fulfilled and should now treat as being over and done with. But it takes only a little more digging to find out that’s not what God thinks. Overpopulation proponents saw children as more mouths to find – they saw them as a problem – but God speaks repeatedly of children as a blessing (Ps. 113:9, 127:3-5, Prov. 17:6, Matt. 18:10, John 16:21). And opportunities present themselves when we see children as God sees them. When we understand they are a blessing, then we realize that not only do children come with a mouth that needs filling, but they also have hands that can produce even more than their mouth consumes. And they have a brain to invent and problem solve. When we see children this way – as a blessing and not a curse – then we'll realize there’s a real practical benefit in having lots of them: as we’ve been told, many hands make light work, and two heads are also better than one! That’s why it shouldn’t have surprised Christians when in the 1950s and 60s a group of inventive sorts, led by American Norman Borlaug, helped develop much higher-yielding strains of cereal crops. This “Green Revolution” turned wheat-importing countries into wheat exporting countries by more than doubling yields. And while there are no prophecies in the Bible specifically mentioning Norman Borlaug, Christians could have seen him coming, and in a sense some did. Those who continued having large families, despite the dire predictions, could do so confident that any problems caused by the innumerable nature of their progeny would be solved by something like the Green Revolution happening. Today, decades later, we can look back and see that a country like China, that ignored what God says about children, is facing a different sort of demographic crisis. A young Chinese couple will have two sets of parents and four sets of grandparents to look after and support, but have no siblings or cousins to help them. As soon as 2030 China will see their population start to decline, with not nearly enough working age citizens to provide for their aging population. It’s not all that different in the Western world where, even without government coercion, our families have been shrinking and women are averaging far less than two children each. We aren’t as near the crisis point as China, but by aborting a quarter of the next generation, we’ve created our own coming demographic crisis. Catastrophic global warming: a biblical case for skepticism The population and gender debates remind us that the Bible is more reliable than any-sized consensus no matter how big. They also teach us that the world can get things not just completely wrong, but monstrously so, leading to the deaths of tens of millions. That’s why when it comes to global warming, where we’re being told once again that the fate of the planet is at stake, we want any and all guidance we can get from God’s Word. Cornelius Van Til once noted: “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication.” The Bible does speak to global warming, but not directly. This isn’t like the gender debate, which runs smack up against Genesis 1:27 (“male and female He created them”) or the overpopulation crisis, which directly opposes the very next verse (“be fruitful and multiply”). When it comes to global warming the Bible isn’t as direct. But there are lots of implications. Time and space only allow me to present a half dozen texts. I’m not pretending that any one of them makes the definitive case for skepticism. But I do think that together they start pointing us decidedly in that direction. "You will know them by their fruits" – Matt. 7:15-20 In Matthew 7 Jesus tells us that we can tell a good tree from a bad one by the fruit on it. His concern wasn’t with trees though, but with telling false prophets from good ones. When it comes to global warming the science is beyond most of us, but we can evaluate the people. So let’s return to this 97% consensus we’ve heard so much about. This statistic is used to argue that there is no question but that the planet is headed to catastrophic climate change. But is this a reliable number, or is it like the greatly exaggerated 10% figure commonly given for the homosexual population? The figure has a few different origins, but one of the more commonly cited is a paper by John Cook and his colleagues reviewing 11,944 published peer-reviewed papers from climate scientists. Did 97% of those papers’ authors agree with the statement “humans are causing global warming”? That’s what we would expect. But instead of 10,000+ papers with that position, there were 3,894, or approximately 33%. So how did the 97% figure come out of that then? Well, it turns out only approximately 34% of the papers took a position one way or the other, with just 1% disagreeing or uncertain, and 33% agreeing. Thus, of the 34% who took a position, 97% agreed that humans are causing global warming. Is it honest to ignore the two thirds who didn’t state a position, and say there is a 97% consensus and no room for a debate? How this statistic has been used reminds me of a trick from another debate – equivocation about the definition of “evolution.” In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins notes that when poachers shoot elephants with long tusks, the next generation is liable to have shorter tusks. Okay, but creationists also believe species can undergo changes over time. We’re the folks arguing that the array of cats we see today are all modified versions of a single cat kind brought on the ark. Dawkins has presented “minor changes over time” – a definition of evolution so broad that it enfolds even creationists into the evolution camp – as if it were proof of the from-goo-to-you sort of evolution that is actually under dispute. Similarly, the 97% consensus is being presented as if all those counted hold that the warming is catastrophic, humans are the primary cause, and there is a need for immediate, drastic, global action. But the agreement was only that “humans are causing global warming.” And that’s a statement so broad as to enfold even many of the so-called “deniers.” So on a statement we can verify – whether there really is a 97% consensus on catastrophic global warming – we find “bad fruit.” There are many other facts and claims we can’t evaluate, but doesn’t this tell us something about the “tree”? “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – Proverbs 18:17 God says that to find the truth good questions are helpful. That’s not going on here, where questioners are likened to Holocaust deniers. But here’s a few questions worth considering: Aren’t there bigger priorities than global warming, like the millions who will starve to death this year, or the billions who lack basic access to clean water and sanitation? If fossil fuels are harmful, and solar and wind problematic, why aren’t we turning to nuclear? How will the world’s poor be impacted by a move away from fossil fuels toward more expensive alternatives? Are we again (as we did in response to overpopulation fears) seeking to save the planet by harming those who live on it? Samuel’s warning against kings – 1 Samuel 8:10-22 President Obama’s chief of staff famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and if you want to understand what he meant, looking no further than Justin Trudeau’s proposed ban on single-use plastics. This past year a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up deep inside his nose went viral, alerting the tens of millions of viewers to the growing problem of plastics in our oceans. The movement to ban plastic straws has taken off since then. But will Trudeau’s single-use plastics ban save turtles? No, because our straws don’t end up in the ocean. Of the mass of plastic in the ocean it’s been estimated the US is responsible for one percent, and it’d be reasonable to conclude that Canada is responsible for far less. So how, then, does all the plastic end up in the ocean? It turns out that the vast majority of it comes from poorer countries that don’t have proper trash disposal. They simply dump their waste into the ocean and into their rivers. Trudeau’s ban will do nothing to help the turtles…but it will expand the government’s reach. The proposed solutions for climate change all involve expanding the government too, giving it a larger role in directing all things energy-related. So, how is 1 Samuel 8 relevant? Here we find Samuel warning against an expansion of government – get a king and he’ll start intruding into all areas of your lives. If there is a biblical case to be made for limited, small government (and there is) then Christians have a reason to question crises that seem to necessitate an ever-expanding role for the State. “…and it was very good.” – Gen. 1:31 While we no longer live in the perfect world Adam and Eve started with, we have only to wriggle our toes, or watch a ladybug crawl across the back of our hand to recognize that God’s brilliant design is still evident and at work all around us. We are on a blue and white marble, spinning at just the right angle, and orbiting at just the right distance from the sun, for it to rain and snow in season. We have a moon just the right size, and circling at just the right distance for us to study our own sun, and to bring the tides that sweep our beaches each day. And our planet is graced with a molten iron core that generates the very magnetic field we need to protect us from the solar winds, which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation. It is wheels within wheels within wheels, and while we can do damage to it, when we appreciate how brilliantly our world is designed we aren’t surprised there is a robustness to it. Meanwhile, the unbeliever thinks our world is the result of one lucky circumstance after another – a tower of teacups, all balanced perfectly, but accidentally. If the world did come about by mere happenstance, then what an unbelievable run of happenstance we’ve had, and isn’t there every reason to fear change? Sure, the teacup tower is balanced now, but if we mess with it, how long can we count on our luck to hold? “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker” – Prov. 14:31 At first glance, this text might not seem to provide much direction in this debate. After all, couldn’t a Christian who holds to catastrophic man-caused global warming cite it in support of their position too? Yes they could. If climate change is real, then the oppression it would bring on the poor would be a reason to fight it. Yet this text does provide a very specific sort of direction. It lays out limits on what sort of global warming plans Christians should view as acceptable: any plan to save the planet that does so by hurting the poor is not biblical. That means increasing energy costs has to be out. Millions are starving already and raising energy prices will only increase those numbers. “Be fruitful and multiply” – Gen. 1:28 Children come with an inevitable “carbon footprint” which is why some global warming proponents echo the same sentiments as the overpopulationists before them. “Save the earth; don’t give birth” is catchy, but if that was the only possible way we could lower carbon emissions then Christians could, on that basis, conclude there was no need to worry about CO2. Because God tells us children are a blessing, not a curse. Of course there may be other ways to lower carbon emissions. But the more we hear people portraying children as a problem, the more we should recognize there is an element in the global warming movement intent on attacking God’s Truth, rather than taking on any real problem. Conclusion Other passages could be mentioned like Genesis 8:22, Romans 1:25 and Psalm 102:25-26 but this is good for a start. And that’s what this is: a start. My hope here is to encourage an exploration of what Scripture says that’s relevant to the issue of catastrophic global warming. The Bible isn’t silent on this topic; we need to look at global warming biblically. This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 issue under the title "Global warming crisis? A brief biblical case for skepticism."...
10 Christian answers to life's deepest questions
There’s no end of mysteries to explore in this weird, wacky, and wonderful universe. How is it that light can be both a particle and a wave? How is it possible that the complexity of a single cell surpasses that of the largest city? And how come there’s no synonym for thesaurus? Among life’s many questions there’s a small collection that garners special attention – they are the deepest and most unfathomable of them all. Or, at least to secular sorts. It turns out that God has given clear and ready answers to any who have the ears to hear. Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A. The chicken. How can you have one without first having the other? But when we understand that God created everything in just six days then we can conclude that, just as He created Adam full grown, He probably started chickens off with their adult versions too. Q. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? A. Yes. Is sound the vibrations in the air, or do those vibrations only become sound when they are heard? Before you answer, consider how there are other vibrations in the air – too low or too high for us to hear – that we consequently don’t regard as sound. However, the problem here is that the premise of the question is wrong: Christians know there is always Somebody around. Q. How did life begin? A. With a word. Evolution has no explanation for the origin of life since evolution's two mechanisms – natural selection, and random mutation – require an already living, already replicating organism to exist before they can act on it. Just as there is no possibility of selecting until there’s a pool of candidates to select from, there can be no mutation until there’s an original to mutate from. While secular sorts have no answer to give, Christians can read all about life’s origins in Genesis 1 and 2. Q. Is my glass half empty or half full? A. Half full. Nothing we have in life is deserved so if we’re given a glass that’s got water right up to the midway point we should view that gratefully, happy for the gift given. Q. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, should you do it? A. No. Abortion advocates have presented a real-life version of this, arguing that legalized abortion lead to a drop in crime because unwanted babies, if they weren't aborted, would presumably grow up in unloving environments that predispose them to crime. So, the argument goes, there is a benefit to killing them early on. But killing people before they become criminals is itself a crime (Ex. 20:13), not "crime prevention." The crime-fighting God does allow includes: hugs, spankings, parents, family, mentors, church, police, restitution, and the death penalty. So a better question might be, if you could go back in time and mentor Hitler, should you do it? Of course, that's more work than pulling a trigger. Q. If God can do anything, can He make a rock too heavy for Him to lift? A. No. God can’t do everything. Specifically, He can’t do anything contrary to His own character. That’s why He can’t ignore sin – His character won't allow it. And that's why, to offer us mercy, Jesus had to come to Earth to take our sins on Himself – God could only offer mercy in a way that still satisfied His need for justice. It would also be contrary to His character, as a God of order, to make rocks too heavy for Him to lift...or to make square circles, or any number of other nonsensical things. Q. Is there life after death? A. Yes! Unbelieving sorts will speculate about there being something after life, but Christians don’t have to. That Jesus died and rose again is the assurance of our own resurrection. He’s beaten death! Q. What is the purpose of life? A. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Money, fame, power, status, and even family bring only temporary joys. What Man was created for was an eternal relationship with our infinite God. **** Christians have our own "unanswerable questions" and, well, it turns out some of them have pretty ready answers too. Who did Cain marry? A. His sister (or possibly his niece). While we aren’t supposed to marry relatives now, that prohibition came 2,000 years after Cain's time (Leviticus 18:6). So why could he marry a close relation and we can't? The explanation probably comes down to genetics. We all have genetic defects - damaged information in our DNA - but so long as we marry someone unrelated, the effects of those errors won’t generally be seen in our children, as the most serious effects of the error are likely to be countered by the corresponding and error-free section in our spouse’s genes. But close relatives may share the exact same defects, and were they to marry, their children would be more likely to have genetic diseases. This didn't apply to Adam and Eve, because they started off with perfect genes, and when their children married, they still didn’t have many errors to pass on. It was only after a couple thousand years that genetic errors would have so accumulated that close relatives had to be barred from marrying. Did Adam have a belly button? A. No. Belly buttons are scars from our umbilical cord connection to our mothers, and since neither Adam or Eve was born, neither of them would have had this scar....
Infant Baptism and the unity of Scripture
Is infant baptism simply a Reformed peculiarity that ought to be jettisoned in the name of Biblical faithfulness and unity with fellow Christians? Wha...
Should we baptize infants? Resources that make the case
On the evening of Sept. 27, 2018, two Reformed pastors debated "Should we baptize infants as well as adults?" Pastor Jared Hiebert, of the Covenant Reformed Church of Stienbach holds to Adult baptism / believer's baptism / credobaptism. This is the belief that while someone need not necessarily be an adult ("adult baptism" is a bit of a misnomer) before being baptized, they do need to be old enough to be able to understand, and confess, their dependency on and devotion to our Lord. Pastor James Zekveld of the Canadian Reformed Church in Niverville holds to Infant baptism / paedobaptism. This is the belief that God's covenant promises are available to the children of believers, and thus these promises can be given not only to adults, but to infants – baptism is for babies too. A 100-minute edited recording of their debate can be viewed below. Reformed Perspective holds to a paedobaptism position, and in preparation for the debate we shared a list of some of the very best resources available in defense of infant baptism. Audio Baptism debate with R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur (2 hours) Two Reformed stalwarts go head to head in this debate, with each given an hour to lay out their best case. R.C. Sproul argues for paedobaptism, and John MacArthur makes the case for credobaptism. Article-length treatments Infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism: What’s the main difference? by Garry Vanderveen A brief defense of infant baptism by Kevin DeYoung Why I changed my mind on infant baptism, by Liam Goligher Paedobaptism by Guy M. Richard Not your average paedobaptist by Jared Oliphint Baptism – a personal journey by David Robertson Why can it take so long to explain Infant Baptism? by R. Scott Clark Shortest argument In Jay Adams’ book Greg Dawson and the Psychology Class, the author poses an intriguing argument for infant baptism. One of the characters in the book, Brian, is trying to convince his girlfriend that infant baptism is biblical, and shares with her this scenario: “It’s the day before Pentecost. Andrew, a pious Jewish father, has just had his child circumcised. He is happy because he now knows that little Simeon is a part of the covenant community – the visible church. The next day, he hears Peter preach and believes the Gospel. Now, according to Baptist thought, his child is no longer in the visible church. In for one day and out the next.” Books worth buying Jesus loves the little children: why we baptize children by Daniel R. Hyde 96 pages / 2006 At under 100 pages, this book by United Reformed pastor Daniel Hyde can be read in just a few evenings, and it provides a solid foundational understanding. Children of the promise: the biblical case for infant baptism by Robert R. Booth 190 pages / 1995 This will take some time to work through, but with short narrative bits to start each chapter, it is incredibly readable. And with recommendations from Greg Bahnsen, Vern Poythress, and Douglas Wilson, it seems everyone likes this book. Baptism: three views edited by David F. Wright 200 pages / 2009 Able defenders of three views – paedobaptism, credobaptism, and the dual view (that both are legitimate) – make their case, and then get to interact with the other two as they critique the offered argument. To a thousand generations by Douglas Wilson 123 pages / 1996 A former baptist, and pastor of a church that has both credo and paedo believers, makes the case for infant baptism. What is Baptism? by RC Sproul 69 pages / 2019 The main features of this title are its insightful and engaging author, its brevity, and its price – you can download the e-book version for free at the link above. Video Paedobaptism vs Credobaptism (6 minutes) This, from the producer of the documentary Calvinist, gives a very brief and balanced presentation of the two sides. The intent here is to help define the two sides of the debate, rather than to defend one side or the other. Did the early Church baptize infants (2 min) W. Robert Godfrey explains how much we can know about the practice of baptism in the first 300 years of church history. ...
Heaven-bound: What will it be like?
We've all been told there's no such thing as a stupid question. And we all know that just isn't so. That may be why in our desire to avoid the embarrassment of asking that big dumb one, many seemingly silly, but actually good, even important, questions go unasked. And I think that's particularly true when it comes to the topic of heaven. So, for example, many of us may remember back in our younger years, wondering if heaven was going to be boring. The idea of strumming on a harp and singing all day, every day, isn’t appealing to most children (nor to many musically inept adults). But while this question bothers many kids, few will ask it out loud – even at a young age they’ve discovered asking these sorts of questions can be embarrassing. Adults also have “heaven questions” that go unasked. What is heaven going to be like? When we get there will we remember our time here on earth? And will we recognize each other in heaven? When these questions are raised they rarely get treated with much respect. Instead of garnering thoughtful responses, questions about heaven are usually answered with another question: Does it really matter? After all, we’re going to get to heaven soon enough and then we’ll find out exactly what it’s like, so what’s the use in thinking about it now? What’s the point? Comfort and correction Well, when we turn to Scripture we find out there are at least two reasons to learn more about heaven. First, many of the heavenly descriptions are a means of comfort to us. Those who weep now will laugh in heaven . Mourning, crying and pain will end and God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes . Yes, here on earth we may have to suffer, stumble, and endure but we can do so knowing that God has prepared a heavenly reward for us . And God does more than comfort us with His descriptions of heaven – He also uses them to correct our misdirected desires. You see, Satan loves to use our desires, even our desires for God and heaven. If he can twist them, just a bit, he can use them to point us in exactly the wrong direction. For example, a friend recently told me about his desire for a “great teacher.” He had learned from some of the smartest men alive, and yet, ultimately, they had all disappointed him. They might provide great insight in one area, and yet be blind in another. This friend wanted to be able to sit at the feet of a great teacher, and just learn. He was very surprised when I told him that what he was really looking for was Jesus. He had wasted all this time trying to satisfy a desire that couldn’t be met here on earth; it was one that could only be fulfilled in heaven. In his book In Light of Eternity Randy Alcorn gives another example of this misdirected desire. A couple in his congregation wanted to give more to the church but also had a strong desire for a “perfect home” in the country. Was that desire wrong? “Not at all,” Alcorn noted. “In fact the dream of a perfect home is from God. It’s just that such a dream cannot and will not be fulfilled in this life.” That perfect home does exist though, but we have to look to heaven for it, where Jesus has prepared just such a place for us . All of us have misdirected desires. We might be looking for that special someone who will finally complete us, or the friend who will totally understand us, or that career that will fulfill us. All of us are busy storing up treasures here on earth, investing our time and energy into things that will rust away or be broken, the sorts of things that will be destroyed by fire when Christ returns. If we focused more on heaven, talked more about it, and thought more about it, perhaps then we would start trying to store up treasures there instead of here. So will heaven be boring? That’s why it’s worthwhile thinking about heaven. Now what will it actually be like? Let’s try and answer a few of those questions. When we get to heaven will we remember our time here on earth? It would seem we will have to remember our time on earth, as we are going to be called to give an account for our every earthly word and deed . Works done in faithfulness will follow us into heaven, where we will be rewarded for them . so it seem clear we will remember these acts as well. Revelation 6:9-11 gives a glimpse into heaven where the martyrs there remember what happened to them on earth – they call out to God to avenge their blood. And the fact that the crucifixion scars remain in Christ’s eternal resurrected body seems to be conclusive proof that we will remember earth. These scars will forever bear witness to what He did for us; they will be a constant reminder of just how undeserving we were, and how gracious and merciful God is. Since we are gong to remember our time on earth that means what we do here is a foundation for our eternal life. This is only the beginning, but it is a beginning we will build on later in heaven . Will we recognize each other in heaven? Some think that since in heaven we will “no longer marry nor be given in marriage” we will no longer recognize our marriage partners or any of our other past relationships made on earth. But that reads far too much into a single text. Many other passages in the Bible would suggest that we will recognize each other. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus , the rich man recognizes both Lazarus and Abraham in heaven. When Moses and Elijah come down from heaven for Jesus’ Transfiguration they were still recognizable as Moses and Elijah. And according to Luke 16:9 the friends we make through our generosity here on earth will remember us in heaven and welcome us into their eternal dwellings. So friendships, interrupted for a time by death, can continue on in heaven. Will heaven be boring? One of Satan’s biggest lies is his portrayal of heaven as a tedious place of idleness and enforced endless singing. We are not going to be idle in heaven – we’re going to reign with Christ, and be assigned responsibilities based on what we did on earth – and when we sing it will be because we can’t contain the praise within us (and even the musically inept will now be able to carry a tune). Have you ever been to a wedding where the bride beamed happiness? Where the joy just spilled out of her? Her joy is but a pale reflection of the greater Joy we will experience in heaven. Everything good and amazing here on earth, from the Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon to the intricacy and wonder of a single living cell, reflect only a tiny part of the glory of their Creator. And in heaven we will finally be able to see Him face to face . Face to face! Heaven will be the very opposite of boring! Though every reader will find some points of disagreement, Randy Alcorn's book "Heaven" is a great, biblically-rooted look at what God has planned for us after this life. It is an encouragement and challenge to Christians - highly recommended! https://youtu.be/zOL8jkWy8MY...
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.” ...
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 pr...
Envy dressed up as equality
A few weeks ago two of my daughters were fighting over a stuffed animal, both insisting it was theirs. I wanted to stop the fight but this struck me as a teachable moment...and I knew I had just the right story to share. “Do you remember when two women came to King Solomon and both said a baby was theirs? King Solomon was going to use a sword to cut the baby in half so that each woman could have half.” Then came the mike drop moment: “Would that be a good idea to do with your stuffie?” The story didn’t impact my girls like I’d hoped: both agreed that splitting the stuffie lengthwise was the way to go. Hmmm… I was left wondering what Solomon would have done if both women had said, “Sure, go ahead.” The best I could come up with was to have the toy bear come stay with the “king” for a while – instead of half a stuffie for both, it was no stuffie for either of them. Kids have a hard time seeing it A few days later I came across another illustration, and because of the less than satisfactory conclusion to my earlier conversation with the girls, I wanted to share this with them too. In the June 6 “Nearer to God Devotional” Pastor Mark Stewart shared an old Jewish folktale, in which an angel visits a businessman known for being envious. The angel wants to encourage the shopkeeper to give up his envy so he tells the man that he can have one wish but with one condition: whatever he wishes for, his neighbor will get twice as much of it. The spiteful man considers the offer for a few moments, and then makes his request: “Please make me blind in one eye.” Both my girls were shocked, and then somewhat amused. What a clever, but ever so wicked, man! He would be blind in one eye, but his neighbor would be blind in both. This story reminded me of another, so I shared an old Cold War joke – something Ronald Reagan might have said. One day a genie visited a Russian peasant and told him he could have one wish. The peasant was quite excited and told the genie about how his neighbor had gotten a goat. He shared how the goat provided the neighbor’s whole family with milk, and goat’s hair for clothing, and was also a wonderful pet for that family’s children. “So you want a goat too?” asked the genie. “No,” said the peasant, “I want you to kill my neighbor’s goat.” In the Bible, the words covetousness and envy seem to be used interchangeably. But if a distinction were to be made, we might describe envy as taking covetousness one step further. The merely covetous man wants what his neighbor has – he wants to be rich too. But the envious man isn’t as concerned with his own state as that of his neighbor’s. He won’t be satisfied until his rich neighbor is poor. Adult miss it too I shared these stories with my daughters because there were obvious connections to be made. There are going to be times when one child gets something – whether it’s piano lessons, a new toy, an opportunity to visit a friend’s house, etc. – that the other siblings don’t get. And many a time those other children will have a hard time being happy for their sibling’s opportunity. They’d be happier if only their sister’s “goat” was killed. Among adults, this destructive envy is harder to spot but that’s only because we’re better at hiding our sins – we’ll even present them as virtues. One example: As I finished sharing the second story my wife noted, “This sounds like the Canadian healthcare system.” In the great white North we aren’t always pleased with our healthcare; wait times can be not simply burdensome, but even deadly. However, one thing Canadians take pride in is how it is the same healthcare for everyone. Politicians and voters stand united against queue-jumping and against a two-tiered healthcare system. Consider though, what we are doing when we try to prevent someone who uses their own money from buying better care than is available to the rest of us. Aren’t we wishing his “goat” was dead? Trying to improve healthcare is a noble desire. But trying to prevent others from seeking better healthcare for themselves is envy disguised as principle. This same “envy as virtue” is behind complaints about income inequality. We live in a time and a place where we are richer than we have ever been – every house has conveniences that even a hundred years ago were luxuries for only the richest of the rich...if they existed at all (running hot and cold water, central heating, phones, computers, TVs, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuums, etc.). So how can the Devil get us to overlook the many ways we have been materially blessed? By getting us looking over the back fence at the new toys in our neighbor's yard. The 10th commandment (Ex. 20:17) forbids just that, but to obscure that clear commandment the Devil presents this sin as something noble. “This isn’t coveting; this is about equality,” he tells us. “This isn’t coveting; it is about compassion for the poor!” Poverty is a problem. When some don’t have enough to eat, or a place to sleep, that is a real concern, and an evil to be fought. But income inequality is simply about envy – anger at how much more someone else has than us. Conclusion Covetousness and envy are sins of ingratitude, of not recognizing how much we’ve been given. Would income inequality be an issue if “poor” protesting college students understood they are richer than 85% of the world? Would my daughters fight over one stuffed animal if I had them first go count their dozens of other stuffies? More to the point, would we envy even Bill Gates if we understood what we’ve been given in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? As Pastor Stewart writes: “Secure in the love of Jesus Christ and our identity as the Father’s children, I have no need to envy my brother or sister. I am a recipient of favor and kindness and grace that I could never earn or pay for. There is no higher or better privilege to reach for…. Content in what the Father has chosen to give to me, I am now freed up to want the best for you....
On the benefits and limits of creeds and confessions
Most RP readers belong to creedal churches. We hold to creeds and confessions because they have helped the Church preserve the truth of God’s Word though the generations. So what are these confessions? In his article “The Necessity of Creeds and Confessions," Garry Vanderveen defined confessions as a: “common/shared interpretation of Scripture, which is the highest and only infallible rule for faith and life.” Orthodox Reformed churches generally still adhere to the ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’) and some set of Reformed creeds (e.g., Westminster Standards, Three Forms of Unity, Augsburg Confession, etc.). In this article I want to explore both the benefit of creeds, and their limits. Symbols that came with risks In the early church, to hold to a creed or confession was often done at risk of one’s social and/or physical safety. In his A History of Christianity (Vol. 1), Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette explained that creeds and confessions are known as “symbols” because the term symbol here, “comes from a word which in one of its usages meant a watchword, or a password in a military camp. As applied to a creed, it was a sign or test of membership in the Church. Assent to the creed or symbol was required to those who were being baptized” People made this confession with a conviction to join the Lord’s army, as it were. They were convinced that Jesus Christ was the true Son of God, that He made full payment for their sins, and that they were assured of the resurrection of the dead. Each believer was prepared to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow ” (Luke 9: 23). Philip Schaff, in his Creeds of Christendom (Vol. 1), explains that the earliest creeds were often committed to memory and not written down. “From fear of profanation and misconstruction by unbelievers… the celebration of the sacraments and the baptismal creed, as a part of the baptismal act, were kept secret among the communicant members until the Church triumphed in the Roman Empire.” The earliest creeds are found in Scripture itself. When Christ asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:15-16). The importance of making a confession was quickly tied to one’s baptism and membership in the early church, and it included a confession of the Triune God before being baptized into the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The authority of creeds The creeds have an ecclesiastical authority but not in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church, and others, would suggest. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the creeds, traditions, and the papacy share a co-ordinate (equal) authority with Scripture, and that, then, is a denial of Scripture alone. Of course, with the Roman Catholic view of continuing authoritative revelation, we can anticipate, and we learn from experience, that the result is an ever-changing view of what God’s Word teaches. Councils, encyclicals, and formal Church documents become as authoritative as Scripture, and because these come later, they can be seen as progressive revelation. Protestant churches need to be careful that we do not fall into the same trap; we need to be very cautious that we do not elevate the ecumenical or Reformed creeds to such a status that we start arguing that any topic they don’t address must therefore be left to the freedom of the individual believer. Many of the creeds were written to articulate what Scripture teaches in response to a perversion of the Scriptures, a heresy. They were written in a historical context, addressing particular matters that were pertinent. They could not have foreseen issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gender confusion, etc. as topics that would need to be addressed. To grant freedom on these issues simply because the creeds don’t speak to them would be to ignore what Scripture does say. Then we would be elevating the confessions to the same level, or even higher than Scripture. And if we do that, then we risk causing the pendulum to swing the other way, leading to an abandoning of creeds and confessions and a turn towards rationalism and unfaithfulness. At the same time, the confessions do have an ecclesiastical authority as they regulate the public teaching of the church. They also allow members to express their commitment to the truth of the Scriptures as articulated by the church. The Apostles’ Creed appears to be the first formally crafted creed, and seems to have developed in response to Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Monasticism. The Nicene Creed, more prevalent in the East, seems to be an expansion of the Apostles’ Creed, with a somewhat stronger emphasis on the Trinity, and in particular, the nature of Christ. So, also, Reformed creeds were written to elucidate the biblical teachings on salvation by grace alone, the sovereignty of God, the sufficiency and completeness of Scripture, etc. They were written to echo the truth of Scriptures on core doctrines of the faith after those doctrines were perverted or misunderstood by the Roman Church and others. Just as early church members used the Apostles’ Creed to make their public profession of faith in order to receive access to the sacraments, so also today, we do something similar. It is quite reasonable to think that members of Reformed churches would express their agreement with Reformed confessions as a way to experience access to the sacraments for themselves and their children within Reformed churches. Are the truths expressed in the later creeds less true, or less important? Are they not expressing crucial truths? Or perhaps we have come to a point in the 21st Century that such truths are of secondary importance – to our detriment, I fear. To be clear, the Scriptures have a self-authenticating authority while the confessions have a provisional authority – they are authoritative in so far as they agree with or accurately summarize the Scriptures. This bears repeating. As Schaff puts it: “The Bible is of God: the confession is man’s answer to God’s Word” No creed but Christ? I recall numerous discussions I had as a young adult with my peers, about the role of the confessions. Many wanted to adopt a “no creed but Christ” attitude. For them, this means that we do not need to express anything other than Christ – only Christ. This sounds pious and echoes the sounds of “Christ alone.” But what does only Christ, or “…but Christ” really mean? Does Scripture allow us to accept the Marcionites and Gnostics in the church of Christ? Or better yet, does Christ accept them as members of His bride? Today’s Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also speak piously of Christ. In fact, the Mormons sing so many evangelical hymns about Christ, it is a wonder that they will not rightly comprehend what they sing. But the truth is, the Apostles’ Creed is – but Christ; the Nicene Creed is – but Christ; the Heidelberg Catechism is – but Christ. What I mean, of course, is that these creeds seek to be nothing more than an articulation of but Christ – they are only what Christ’s Word teaches us. All of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is equally the Word of God. As long as creeds and confessions echo the truth of God’s Word, they remain but Christ. Grey Areas To be fair, the aforementioned points raise some real challenges. In particular, how do we view or interact with those who cannot articulate agreement with Reformed confessions, but bear fruit as confessing Christians? They could agree with the Apostles’ Creed or all the ecumenical creeds, but not the Reformed ones. Can they not also be members of local Reformed congregations? Do they have to answer “I do” to this question: Do you believe the Word of God, summarized in the confessions, and taught here in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation? These are questions I’ll explore in future articles as I seek to read through the forms for making a public profession of faith in use among faithful Reformed churches. As a start, however, there are things that churches cannot know, or things that we cannot decide – this is God’s hidden will. God decides who is and will be a member of the New Jerusalem, and every individual there will be there only because of Christ’s redeeming work. What the church can and must do, however, is ensure that the thrice holy God is honoured and His Word obeyed, and preached. If the Church no longer believes that the confessions articulate fundamental truths of God’s Word, necessary for salvation – if they are more than but Christ – then one wonders why they should maintain any kind of ecclesiastical authority. Is there no room for grace, further education, disagreement? On a practical level, I find this very difficult. I believe, for example, fundamentally, that children should be baptized as members of Christ’s covenant congregation. I also believe that I have true brothers and sisters who would agree that children of believers belong to God, but who would disagree that baptism is a sign and seal of that reality, and so refuse to baptize their children. Is there a way to express and experience this unity despite the significant difference? Can I be honest and say, “I don’t know”? Perhaps we need to begin by identifying a difference between a personal conviction and a church’s position. That is, while I enjoy fellowship and relationship with such brothers and sisters, the fullness of our unity cannot be expressed until there is repentance and/or until Christ returns, in whom all of our sins are completely forgiven. If we were to put the problem the other way, a Reformed Baptist congregation would not agree to baptize my children if that church believed, fundamentally, that doing so would be sin or at least meaningless. Would I be permitted to be a full-fledged member if I refused to be rebaptized? Probably not. Creeds and confessions express a church’s understanding of the truth of God’s Word. They are not meant to serve as a catalogue of ideas from which we can pick and choose. The church adopts these statements of faith because they delineate our expression of the faith from those who express this faith differently. So, while we are on earth, we must strive to maintain the truth, and unity in that truth. Where there is not unity in understanding of the truth, there might need to be a limit to the experience of the spiritual unity we trust often exists. God is gracious, and while it is not good that brothers and sisters are separated because of sin, it is the way things are. Perhaps, even before Christ returns, we’ll all agree on why we baptize (or not) children of believers, but not likely. So, we wait patiently and pray fervently for Christ’s return when we will all experience the fullness of joy in belonging to Christ and to each other, in perfection. Until then… let us be careful that we do not compromise on the truth of God’s Word...
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....
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....