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

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

Browse thousands of RP articles

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

Get Articles Delivered!

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

Create an Account

Save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.


Advertising



Most Recent


Church history, Theology

Original Sin: Luther’s other life-changing doctrine

Every Reformation Day we remember how God used Luther to teach the Church that we are justified by faith alone, not by what we do. But often overlooked is how God used Luther to revive another forgotten, life-changing, doctrine. 

****

Martin Luther is more than another dusty historical figure – he has become a symbol of the Reformation itself. His legend is vivid enough to obscure the details of the actual man and the world in which he lived. The legend tells us the story of the tight way his life mirrored his theology, in his journey from the bondage of doubt to freedom in Christ.

Yet this is not the only legend told – a man as famous as Luther collects negative portrayals as well as positive ones. Not all Roman Catholics would see Luther as a man to celebrate.In fact, Martin Luther has been characterized as a coarse man, a divisive man – worse than that, a man who allowed his own personal struggles with his faith to split the church. He was offered every comfort in the church he was raised in. His priest confessor grew tired of listening to the litany of sins he had committed, sins so minor they were hardly worth the breath it took to confess them.Why couldn’t Luther find comfort in his faith? It is said of him, that surely he must have been of a depressive temperament, or mentally unstable.Surely he was a peculiar man, an unusual man, and not a man others should've followed.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone that a Roman Catholic might disparage Martin Luther as being unhealthily obsessed with sin, even as a Protestant might respect him as a great mind. Yet what we are after in this article is an honest evaluation of the life and thinking of this pivotal figure who has had such an enormous impact on Christianity. So this is the necessary question:was Luther unhealthily obsessed with his defects, or was this an important piece in the formulation of his theology?

Awareness of the full horror of our sinful inclinations

Luther’s theology is well-known: justification by faith alone.

But to focus on justification by faith alone is to miss the rest of the story. It misses Luther's awful awareness of sin, and his dawning realization that sin was not limited to his conscious actions but was linked to the very nature of who he was. In fact, Luther suffered because he was aware not only of his actualsin, but also his sinful nature. And the comfort his church offered him all the years he struggled as a monk was rooted in a very different view of humanity's original sin, a view that did not provide him with the strategies to address his own sinful nature as the fountain of his sinful impulses.

This is not a mere scholastic discussion.

Not only does one’s opinion of Martin Luther as a human being affect the way one views the Reformation, but it also affects the way one approaches anyone who experiences distress, as Luther did, over their sinful inclinations. Luther’s understanding of his sinful nature, can give comfort to those who are also rightly realizing the full horror of the sinful inclinations running through their every action. This is an important point. Understanding the sinfulness of our nature is necessary if we’re going to give true comfort to believers who produce sin continually. To neglect to define human nature as actively inclined to sin, even after conversion, leads to spiritual distress. Luther’s life illustrates this, and Reformed theology further confirms this.

Consequently, it is necessary to first look at the doctrine of original sin as the Roman Catholic Church understood it, and then how Luther differed and how it affected his life.

sinful nature or an ungoverned one?

Did Roman Catholics in Luther’s time, then, not think humans had a sinful nature? It is perhaps better to say they did not talk in terms of a sinful nature at all. Theologians defined original sin as a lackof a special gift God had granted at creation. This special gift, which is often called “original justice” in their writings, enabled man to conform his will to God. And as a result of original justice, man’s will could be rightly directed towards God.

Then, when man fell, this special gift was removed, and therefore man in his nature was wounded and no longer directed to God.Man’spassions became unleashed as a result of losing original justice in the Fall, and these passions were no longer rightly directed by man’s will and reason. This ungoverned desire or passion was not in itself regarded as sinful unless it resulted in an actual sinful action. Therefore there did remain in man the “tinder of sin” or “concupiscence,” from which actual sins sprung, but which was not sin itself.5

Concupiscenceis not a replacement for the Reformed understanding of man’s sinful nature, but rather a separate concept, separated from man’s will and reason, and not something active in every part of a man. This illustrates that medieval theology had quite a different formulation of the nature of man, and used these divisions to explain original sin in a very different way than later Protestant theology.

This doctrine had developed throughout the Middle Ages, with theologians such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas increasingly defining original sin as a lack of something, rather than an active inclination against God, as Augustine had.6

In one sense their move in this direction makes sense, because to define original sin as a lack and a removal of a special gift appears to preserve the justice of God. If God only took back what had never been essential to man’s nature, God is not unjust because he may grant or not grant gifts as he wishes. A division of the nature of man was one way to address this, and medieval theology was further influenced by philosophical traditions of the time.7

This conception of original sin was carried over by the Nominalist theologians that Luther reacted most strongly against. In this school of thought, God adapted his righteous requirements to mercifully accept the very best acts man could do, and that God would, in return, give grace to man if man did his very best.This has obvious implications for justification, but it affects original sin as well, as it teaches that man, after the fall, is still able to detest sin and seek God.It was asserted that man in his natural powers could achieve selfless love out of his own will, and God would graciously respond to this.10 This theology can only result from a conception of original sin as a lackof something, rather than an activeinclination to rebel against God.

Luther’s struggle

When expressed this way, the division between the usual Protestant and Roman Catholic view of Luther becomes clearer. Our opinion of Luther might hinge on the nature of the sinful inclinations Luther detected in himself.

If God did nothold Luther guilty for his concupiscence, all of Luther’s fellow priests were right to be exasperated by his continual struggle with his worry over it, and Roman Catholics today are right to dismiss Luther’s obsession as anxious mental instability.

But if he truly stood condemned before the face of God, as he felt he was, then he was justified in his terror and his struggle to find a source of comfort. As a result, the Reformation that resulted from his shift in theology was justified, and more than justified– it was necessary!

Luther suffered deeply as he grew more and more aware of the sea of sinful inclinations inside him. He would confess his sins daily – for as long as six hours – searching his memory and analyzing his every motive to be sure he had not missed a single one. While his priest grew exasperated with listening, Luther grew more and more frightened that he could go on thinking of new sins even after six hours. Roland H. Bainton underscores this in his biography of Luther, Here I Stand:

“There is, according to Luther, something much more drastically wrong with man than any particular list of offenses which can be enumerated, confessed and forgiven. The very nature of man is corrupt. The penitential system fails because it is directed to particular lapses. Luther had come to perceive that the entire man is in need of forgiveness.”11

This realization plunged Luther into terror. Philip Watson describes Luther’s state like this:

“The scholastic theologians, it is true, taught that concupiscentiawas not in itself to be regarded as sin… But this again occasioned questionings and apprehension in Luther’s mind. Had his will not consented? … Was he really in a state of grace – for he could perceive no evidence of its effective working in him?”12

The comfort offered by his priests – that God was a merciful God – did little to alleviate this burden. To Luther, this kind of mercy diminished God’s righteousness, and he refused to conceive of God’s justice in such human terms.13

But was Luther’s problem his own sinful inability to accept mercy, or was there a flaw in his theology that needed to be rectified? Luther came to believe there was a flaw in his theology, namely, that every action a person takes, even those which outwardly appear to be good ones, are shot through with sin.

One could easily conclude Luther’s conscience was overly sensitive, and that he suffered for nothing.14 It might even be comforting to conclude Luther could not have been in his right mind to have been so bothered by how he fell short of God’s standards. Everyone falls short, after all, and it is comforting to assume God will overlook small shortcomings. And Luther was a monk – he’d devoted everything to being a good one. But it is better to conclude that Luther had the valuable ability not to take his sins lightly. Perhaps his sensitive conscience was necessary to correctly depict a God who doesn’t make compromises with sin. Luther himself mused in this way later in his life.15

Luther experienced intense distress, and part of his distress was a direct result of the way theology was framed at the time. Defining original sin as a loss rather than an active inclination did not give him a conception that equipped him to understand the sinful inclinations he could see in himself. When he felt the desire to curse God, the only way he could fit it into the theology he knew at the time was in a way that damned him. If he truly was a believer he should be moving towards a deeper understanding of God, but despite all his spiritual acts he never felt his sinful impulses lessen. He knew what was inside him was an active inclination. The sins he confessed constantly were active rebellion, an active rebellion against God. And he needed a theology that could incorporate this rebellious inclination that he could not deny was in himself, and yet still grant him the comfort of being saved.

Luther’s freedom began when he, finally, not only faced the reality of his depravity, but also grasped that Christ’s sacrifice had the power to atone for not only his actual sins but also his sinful nature. “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise.”16 It was only after this realization that he was freed from his constant inner reflection to be able to go out into the world and actually, by the grace of God, to change it.

Luther’s concept of original sin

When it comes to original sin it is clear that Luther objected to the church’s doctrine of original sin on two points: first, that natural man can take even a step towards loving God, or make any motion that God could condescend to respond to with grace; second, that even after conversion man still possesses sinful desires that are present even in outwardly good works.

Luther never systematically pulls all of his theological ideas together in one work, but he discusses original sin throughout his writings. In particular, his early lectures on Romans are crucial in the development of his ideas on original sin because in connection with Romans he spends a lengthy amount of time considering this doctrine.17 Luther argues on the basis of Romans that original sin was not just a lack of a quality in the will or a lack of light in the mind, but a total lack of uprightness and power of everything in body and soul – a complete inclination to evil.18 The scholastic trend Luther discerned was an attempt to replace divine grace with light of human reason.19 Luther argues, in response, that using human reason to discern what is good will only define the best things according to humans, not God. “e should call ‘natural’ the fact that we are in sin and death and that we desire, understand, and long for things that are corrupt and evil,” Luther states in another one of his works.  He then insists, “Who does not see the contradiction between the statement that the natural powers are perfect, and the statement that nature is corrupted by sin?”20 Human nature will result in doing “good things in an evilway.” Good things performed by natural capacity are good in an evil way, performed not for service of God but in service of the creature.21

In this work on Romans, Luther also works out the sinfulness of believers. One of the reasons Luther was so radical is related to his second assertion, that an active sinful nature still operates in a believer, and that therefore a person can be simultaneously saved and a sinner. Yet his lectures on Romans should utterly destroy any notion that Luther preached righteousness through faith alone in order to dispense with good works: Luther argues that a sinner has the beginning of righteousness and continues to seek more and more of it. In other words, while a man knows he is a sinner and knows every moment that he is entirely incapable of doing anything good, he continues to follow the will of God in his life. He continues to walk the path God has set out, because God’s grace has shown him the first step. Every intentional step a sinner takes is an intentional movement from sin to righteousness.22

Luther was convinced that defining original sin in terms of privation (or lack) alone was a reductionist approach and did not express the real severity of the Adam’s sin. He argued sin is not a localized part but in the whole person, as well as a positive reality and not privation.23 This doctrine needs to be intimately connected with salvation – Christ is the second Adam, and just as the penalty in Adam leads to condemnation, believers receive the gift of grace through Christ to avoid condemnation.24 

Roman Catholic response

It is clear Luther’s view of original sin was one of part of his theology that Rome objected to. In 1545 the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent specifically to deal with the theology of Luther and other Reformers. The Council’s decrees state:

“This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin. But if anyone is of the contrary opinion, let him be anathema.”25

Here the Council declares that even when Paul laments that he is inclined to actively commit sin, he is not talking about something that is sin in and of itself. Due to conflicting streams of Roman Catholic thought on original sin at the time, the definition of original sin by this council is perhaps more vague than it could have been, and yet it still rejects any formulation of original sin that could fall in line with Luther.26 It is defined as a loss (of justice and holiness), and underscores that the origin and possible effect of concupiscence is sin, while concupiscence itself does not incur guilt – under this definition it is then possible for believers to do good works free of sinful inclinations.

More clarity on the decrees of the Council of Trent is provided in TheCouncil of Trent: Catechism for Parish Priests, written soon after the Council of Trent ended. This catechism continues to define concupiscence as the “fuel of sin” and not sin itself.27 It confirms that when concupiscence is used to refer to the remains of sin after baptism, it is not conceiving of concupiscence as identical to the Reformed conception of the sinful nature.

It is interesting to note is how concupiscence is defined as the remains of sin after baptism (the “fuel of sin” or the “tinder of sin”), and yet in this Catechism it is also defined as merely a desire for something one doesn’t have. Certainly a desire for warmth when one is cold should not be considered a sin, but can this desire be thought of as a remainder after original sin is removed?

It seems more likely that the term concupiscence can be used in two ways, first as a more benign term which refers to desire, and then as a more negative term referring to the unbridled desires that man loses control over as a result of his wounded nature. The Reformed definition of sinful nature would not be a loss of control over human desires, but rather the active sinful bend in every human desire.

And this parish priest catechism goes on to highlight the issues with understanding concupiscence in this way, when it goes on to define sinful concupiscence as concupiscence that conflicts with spirit and reason. The Reformed interpretation would emphasize that spirit and reason are bent away from God as well, and so a conflict between desire, spirit and reason would be meaningless as a barometer of sinfulness before God.

The medieval Roman Catholic interpretations of original sin flow out of understandable concerns – concerns to preserve the voluntary nature of original sin, and to prevent an overly deterministic understanding of sin. There is an impulse to encourage believers to do good works, and fight against their actual sin. However, the solution runs up against obvious problems. If the radical nature of sin is diminished, and man’s nature is affected by the fall only by the loss of something, any active rebellious tendencies are left without an explanation.

Our Comfort

How, then, should original sin be defined? As with any doctrine, there are many different ideas about it. But a definition of original sin needs to be practical, and speak directly to the individual believer who sees in themselves a sin-streaked nature. This is why the Reformers formulated confessions to be used in the church, and these define sin clearly. First, the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes man is unable to do good because he is by nature inclined to hate God and his neighbour. This active turning away from God is at the heart of both our sinful nature and every actual sin.28 The Belgic Confession also devotes an article to the doctrine of original sin, and emphasizes in the same way that man is a slave to sin.29

Original sin, according to the Belgic Confession, corrupts the entire nature of man:

“As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race. It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”30

This formulation does a few things. It insists original sin corrupts the entire nature of man, not just one part of it. And it does not diminish the radical nature of human nature’s corruption. The Belgic Confession uses as scriptural evidence not just Paul’s well-known passage about doing the sin he does not want to do, but also Romans 5:12, which declares through Adam all were made sinners. Adam’s sin resulted in more than just a potential from which true sin could spring, rather it produced real sinners. This is necessary to grasp, and the various explanations of original sin must hold onto this central concept.

Therefore in the Belgic Confession humans did not just merely lose something because of original sin, just as Luther insisted man did not just merely lose some quality in the will or light in the mind. “For whatever light is in us has changed into darkness,” the Belgic Confession agrees. Scripture supports this by showing the corruption of the will and of every part of man: the heart of man is polluted, the mind of man is set on sin, and the desire of man is contrary to God.31 Humans of themselves are by nature rebellious and always turned away from God – “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The Belgic Confession insists the effects of sin are so radical and so widespread, especially in man prior to conversion, that it is impossible to imagine how man can take even a step towards a right relationship with God again. And it underscores Luther’s understanding that even in a believer this sinful nature will continue to produce sin, as it states:

“the awareness of this corruption may make groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.”

Therefore our confessions present to us a necessary formulation of the biblical passages on original sin – and, in addition, it provide unspeakable comfort. See, for example, the declaration in the Belgic Confession:

“We believe that, when He saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him.”32

This is utterly realistic about humanity. It does not shy away from the worst of our nature. Yet it magnifies God. God does not meet us halfway – God goes farther and actually saves those who are actively running away.

In conclusion, this confession – and this entire doctrine of original sin – directly reassures those who are distressed because they are real sinners with active rebellious inclinations against God. Just as Luther looked at himself and despaired at his progress toward loving God, unable to leave behind sin and unable to make progress in ridding himself of his sinful nature, so too many believers may look at themselves in discouragement. In order to move on from despair, Luther needed to both acknowledge the bend of his own nature away from God – radically affecting every ounce of him – and to accept this inclination as true sin. Then he could fully grasp the even greater length God reaches, and find the assurance of astonishing forgiveness in Christ. Christ’s blood covers the guilt of our sinful nature just as much as it covers actual sins. Just as in Adam man fell so fully, so man was so united with Christ as to be absolutely saved. And believers today can follow in this comfort. They no longer need to be paralyzed by an inward focus on the depth of their sin, but they can move on from the depth of their sin to look outward to Christ. And this truly frees a believer to live and act.

End notes

This is not to deny many Roman Catholics do, in fact, view Luther positively despite his excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church.
“Look here,” said , “if you expected Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes.” Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, (New York, Abingdon Press, 1950), 54.
For examples of modern speculations on Luther’s mental state, including diagnoses of scrupulosity, see http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1, and http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/, for two examples. Accessed November 6, 2017. This Roman Catholic view of Luther stems from writings such as the above, as well as personal interaction with individual Roman Catholics. It is important to note no one view of Luther is unanimous.
George Vandervelde,Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975), 30.
In medieval theology, the Fall did result in original sin; however, the guilt and condemnation of original sin is removed by God in his grace in baptism. The doctrine of original sin is intimately connected with the doctrine of baptism, however to explore the meaning of the sacrament of baptism in depth is beyond the scope of this paper. According to Roman Catholic theology, baptism remits original sin.
There were various theological strains on the doctrine of original sin within the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, with different scholars following Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic formulations of the doctrine. There was not one defined, dominant view. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 27, 28.
Jairzinho Lopes Pereira attributes Augustine’s lack of influence among the Scholastics (those Luther opposed) to Aristotelian philosophical influence. Jairzinho Lopes Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner(Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 267.
Ibid., 269-270. Gabriel Biel, who spoke of a ‘pactum’ between God and humans, where God promises to reward with grace those who do their best, not because humans deserve grace, but because God is merciful. Luther wrote against this, and others in the Nominalist school of thought.
Ibid., 275.
10 Another theologian Luther was likely reacting against was Duns Scotus: see Philip Watson’s description of Luther’s interaction with Scotus’ theology. Philip Watson, Let God be God:  An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1948), 50.
11 Bainton, Here I stand, 55. In Luther’s work on Psalm 51 he also describes his struggle to understand the doctrine of original sin, and his conviction that natural man could not will the good. He lectured on the Psalms early in his career, prior to lecturing on Romans. From this passage, it is not clear whether he finds much comfort in this conception of man’s sinful inclinations. He does not move on to justification in his explanation, but rather asserts an explanation of original sin is a mystery. A correct understanding of original sin needs to be tied to salvation in Christ to bring comfort. See “Psalm 51,” in Selected Psalms 1(ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; trans. Jaroslav Pelikan; vol. 12 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), 351.
12 Watson, Let God be God, 16.
13 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 322n.3.
14 Bainton goes on to address the question of Luther’s mental state, admitting many aspects of Luther’s state at the time do compare with mental disturbances. However, he maintains, Luther’s mental struggle never affected his tremendous work output. In addition, the issues Luther struggled with were real issues that existed in the religion he lived and worked with, and more than that, he did make progress through his struggles to clarify what religious solutions actually addressed his struggles and which were unhelpful. Later, Bainton shows Luther’s mentor, Staupitz, must have considered Luther fundamentally sound despite his exasperation with Luther’s inability to find comfort, because Staupitz told Luther he should assume the chair of the Bible at the university. Despite all Luther’s struggles, he was entrusted with teaching others, and Staupitz appeared to have confidence that by teaching the source of their religion, Luther would learn about what help the Bible offered him in his struggles. Bainton, Here I Stand, 56, 60.
15 Ibid., 361. Throughout his life Luther eventually worked out a technique for dealing with his spiritual depression. One important part was that he came to believe that sensitive believers could, by going through such struggles, understand their beliefs in a deeper way. Sensitive believers could then share these beliefs with less sensitive believers in a way that leads them to agree with the truth of it.
16 Bainton, Here I Stand,65.
17 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 28, 31.
18 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia(ed. Hilton C. Oswald; trans. Jacob A. O. Preus; vol. 25 of Luther’s Works; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 299.
19 In Luther’s work on Psalm 51, he also describes being taught that man had only lost grace and that if man followed the light of his nature he would be given grace. Luther rejects this formulation. See Luther, “Psalm 51,” 351.
20 Ibid., 351.
21 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 338-339.
22 Luther, Lectures on Romans,260.
23 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 331-332.
24 Pereira, Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, 335.
25 Council of Trent, Session 5, June 17, 1546, Decree concerning original sin, in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), 27-28.
26 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology(Grand Rapids: 1949), 258, http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf
Vandervelde argues that the reason the Council of Trent was somewhat vague in its definition was that there were participants from Augustinian, Anselmian and Thomistic traditions. They agreed on which errors to combat, but less so on what ideas to defend (p 33).  It is interesting to note one of the participants at the Council of Trent, Seripando (who was an Augustinian), opposed defining concupiscence as “a morally neutral human drive” instead of a “morally qualified inclination to evil.” However, he was not successful. Vandervelde, Original Sin, 40.
27 Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982) 183-184, 469-470.
28 “The Heidelberg Catechism,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 309.
29 “Belgic Confession,” in Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 3:398-400. Hereafter I will cite the Belgic Confession in the form BC Article 14 with the volume and page number of Schaff following in brackets, e.g., BC Article 14 (3:398-400).
30 BC Article 15 (3:400-401).
31 See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 258, as well as Jer 17: 9, Rom 8: 7, Gal 5: 24.
32 BC Article 17 (3:402).

Bibliography

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand. New York, Abingdon Press, 1950.
Beattie, Trent. http://catholicexchange.com/from-scrupulosity-to-lutherosity-part-1. Accessed November 6, 2017.
“Belgic Confession.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:383-436. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: 1949. PDF. http://downloads.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf.
Catechism of the Council of Trent. Translated by John a. McHugh and Charles J.Callan. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1982.
“Heidelberg Catechism.” In Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, edited by Philip Schaff, 3:307-355. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919.
Luther, Martin. Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Translated by Jacob A. O. Preus. Vol. 25 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972.
Luther, Martin. “Psalm 51.” Pages 301-410 in Selected Psalms 1. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Translated by Jaroslav Pelikan. Vol. 12 of Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955.
Miller, Leila. http://www.catholicstand.com/scrupulosity-a-little-bit-of-hell/. Accessed November 6, 2017.
Pereira, Jairzinho Lopes.  Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner. Bristol: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.
Trent, Council of. Decree concerning original sin. Session 4, June 15, 1546. In The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by Rev. H. J. Schroeder, 21-28. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978.
Vandervelde, George.  Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation. Amsterdam : Rodopi, 1975.
Watson, Philip.  Let God be God:  An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia : Muhlenberg Press, 1948.

The painting is Ferdinand Pauwels' (1830–1904) "Luther discovers the bible."

Book excerpts, Book Reviews, Theology

A passage from "The Hiding Place" I can't manage to read out loud...

Corrie Ten Boom's autobiographical The Hiding Place is best known for its account of her war time experiences. But one of the many powerful sections in the book is about something that happened decades before, in the year 1919. Corrie's describes her Tante Jans as a Christian social activist, who helped the poor, and also wrote tracts and pamphlets decrying such evils as mutton sleeves and bicycle skirts. In other words, a busy, well-meaning, but generally humorless lady, who was trying to earn her way to heaven. When the doctor diagnoses her with diabetes it is quite a shock as there was no real treatment at that time. It meant that Tante Jans had very little time left, maybe a few years. Her response? "And from then on she threw herself more forcefully than ever into writing, speaking forming clubs and launching projects." But then one day her weekly blood test came back black. Black meant she not longer had years or months, but merely days, three weeks at most. The family learns this before Tante Jan, and as they consider how to tell her Corrie's father hopes that: "Perhaps she will take heart from all she has accomplished. She puts great store on accomplishment, Jans does, and who knows but she is right!" So upstairs to her room they all go. "Come in," she called to Father's knock, and added as she always did, "and close the door before I catch my death of drafts." She was sitting at her round mahogany table, working on yet another appeal... As she saw the number of people entering the room, she laid down her pen. She looked from one face to another, until she came to mine and gave a little gasp of comprehension. This was Friday morning, and I had not yet come up with the results of the test. “My dear sister-in-law,” Father began gently, “there is a joyous journey which each of God’s children sooner or later sets out on. And, Jans, some must go to their Father empty- handed, but you will run to Him with hands full!” “All your clubs…,” Tante Anna ventured. “Your writings…,” Mama added. “The funds you’ve raised…,” said Betsie. “Your talks…,” I began. But our well-meant words were useless. In front of us the proud face crumpled; Tante Jans put her hands over her eyes and began to cry. “Empty, empty!” she choked at last through her tears. “How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?” And then as we listened in disbelief, she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that we must come with empty hands. I thank You that You have done all – all – on the Cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”...

Theology

Whom Do You Serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power

Children are often told to obey many different folks. Listen to your mom and dad. Listen to the policeman. Listen to your teacher. Listen to the pastor. Adults too are encouraged to obey various authority figures. Which raises a question: what happens when demands of the State and demands of other authorities clash? Whom do we obey? The Dutch philosopher, theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper developed a system of thought to assist in understanding the authority structures in the world. The system is called “sphere sovereignty” and it helps answer the question, “Who do we obey when various demands on us and our behavior clash?” GOD OVER ALL Kuyper argued and demonstrated from the Bible that God has created in society a number of different institutions or spheres, each with their own respective roles and responsibilities. Three of the most important institutions created by God are: the CHURCH– starting with Adam, and continuing through Noah, Abraham, the people of Israel and the New Testament church the STATE– whose role is set out in various places including Psalm 72 and Romans 13 the FAMILY – begun with Adam and Eve In the Bible, God gives each of these spheres a distinct task and role. So, for example, the sphere of State is sovereign in matters properly within its jurisdiction as given and defined by God. Some of those matters would include criminal law, national defense, and maintaining a fair and impartial justice system. The sphere of Church (or synagogue/mosque/temple/monastery, etc.) is sovereign over areas within its jurisdiction: theology and doctrine and church discipline and membership. And within the sphere of family lies responsibility for issues of child education and discipline, religious instruction, sexual ethics, moral development, etc. In the graphic accompanying this article, you’ll notice other spheres: a larger sphere of Society and smaller spheres which are each sovereign in their own right: the market, the academy, charities and the individual. Academics will argue over how many separate spheres there might be, but while the number and boundaries of the smaller spheres is a source of debate, there is agreement about the obvious biblical basis for the first three. God has instituted the Church, the State and the Family and invests each with its own specific sphere of authority. There is, of course, some overlap from sphere to sphere. Fraud can’t be limited to the market sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the consumer. Physical assault of a child can’t be limited to the family sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the child. Restorative justice can’t be limited to the State sphere; it requires the family sphere and the church sphere to mend broken relationships. However, there are also boundaries between the spheres. These boundaries are critical. History has taught us that great harm can be done when one sphere takes over the role of another. For example, problems abound when the State interferes in church doctrine issues. This was the greatest problem during the bloody Reformation era. The State used the sword to enforce church doctrine, which was a total abuse of its power, and a violation of the principles of sphere sovereignty. A modern example would be the Ontario human rights tribunal ordering a Roman Catholic bishop to explain himself to the Tribunal for not allowing an openly gay man to serve as an altar boy (this occurred in Peterborough, Ontario in September 2009). A similar violation of the boundaries between the spheres happened when the Ontario Minister of Education, standing outside the Ontario Legislature, declared that Christian schools could not teach that abortion is wrong, since such a teaching was “one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.” (That statement was made by Minister Broten in October, 2012.) And in the not too distant past, churches and families tried to keep certain criminal acts (child abuse, for example) quiet and internal, when it ought to have been reported immediately to the State. Having shown the boundaries that exist between these spheres, we need to turn our attention to the key of Kuyperian sphere sovereignty: over each and every sphere reigns Christ as sovereign. Kuyper’s famous saying applies here: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” As a Christian country, we once recognized this, and it wasn't even that long ago. The preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (added to our Constitution in 1982) still states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…” Recognizing the supremacy of God is necessary in public policy because, when we fail to do so, someone or something else will take God’s place as supreme authority. THE STATE/LAW OVER ALL For example, take a look at the concept of sphere sovereignty through the eyes of our former Chief Justice, the Right Honorable Beverley McLauchlin. We can see in some or her statements a recognition that there are some spheres in life which are distinct: the sphere of society, spheres of religious communities and families and the sphere of the State. But we should take careful note of where, in her mind, the State sits in relation to the other spheres. In a speech delivered in October 2002, Her Honor stated that: the rule of law exerts an authoritative claim upon all aspects of selfhood and experience in a liberal democratic state… influenc local, community, and familial structures. The authority claimed by law touches upon all aspects of human life and citizenship… It makes total claims upon the self and leaves little of human experience untouched. These “total claims” on us as legal subjects, she said, “flow from a conception of authority rooted in the sovereign .” Invoking Kuyper, one could paraphrase what the Chief Justice said in this way: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which the Law, which is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Admittedly, Her Honor does believe that Law must carve out space for religious communities to live according to their particularities. However, it’s Law (and the State, as the authors of the Law) who makes space and accommodations for religion. For our chief justice, law remains the supreme authority. So there remains a tension between the Law of the State and religious precepts, familial obligations, and individual responsibilities. THE ROAD TO TYRANNY Without something (or, more properly, Someone) over all spheres, tension breaks out between the spheres, and a struggle ensures to see which sphere will reign as supreme. Now, of all of the spheres (the State, the Church, the Family, the Market, etc.) which has the most power? Quite obviously, the State does. As the Apostle Paul once wrote, it “bears the sword.” It has unlimited financial resources, it has coercive powers, it writes the laws, and it has lethal force. So, if God is removed as sovereign, who becomes sovereign? The State does. This is absolutely evident in every officially atheist country from the last century: the USSR, China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy. When the State raises itself above God, then God becomes a problem for the State. And know this: as the State replaces God, or makes itself god, then it naturally also begins to compete with the family, substituting itself for the family. (It’s no coincidence that the leader of North Korea is referred to as “father.”) And when we, free citizens in a free country, begin to think that the State will provide everything for us, not just national defense or a fair justice system (as it ought to) but also total healthcare, education, food, clothing and shelter, unemployment wages, settlement of petty disputes with our landlords and employers, and on and on, then we are looking to the State not just as god, but also as savior. Lord Acton once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That dictum is true for all of mankind because of our innate sinfulness and our covetous lust for more. This may be why the LORD never allowed all three offices of the Old Testament to be vested in a single person, though there were exceptional cases where a single person was both a prophet and a priest. Think, for example, of the punishment of King Uzziah when he tried to act as priest and burn incense before the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). Applying this anecdotal evidence for division of power to our civil government, we see a three-fold division of power there too, between the judiciary, legislature, and executive. The Canadian Constitution holds all three branches of government in check – each have power to limit the powers of the other. But if that balance is ever upset such that one person (or one small group of people) becomes lawmaker and law interpreter and law enforcer, we will have tyranny. Expanding out from the Biblical offices and expanding out from civil government, we see that there is a natural protection against tyranny in the dispersion of power. Lord Acton also wrote, “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.” So we see that for mankind’s good, God gives some power to the church, some power to families, and some power to the State. But if the ultimate power concentrates (as it is tending to do these days) in one of these spheres, we also have tyranny. One example would be in the realm of education: God gives authority over education of children to parents, with the church assisting parents in that calling historically. But in the last century, the State took over, first from the church, and now more and more from parents, such that even the most intimate and personal educational material is being taught by State bureaucrats, often without parents knowing (think of some of the graphic sex education curriculum for grade 3 and 4). REMINDING OUR NEIGHBORS OF GOD'S PLACE One of our responsibilities as Christian citizens in a free country is to keep the State in its proper place, and to remind fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State. This is where you come in. Use the graphics in this article to show your friends and colleagues that we all must be under some ultimate authority. The question is simply, which one? Are we willing to submit ourselves fully to the State? Isn’t the Lordship of Christ infinitely better? We must remind our fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State, and explain to them the effect of subjecting everything to the ultimate authority of the State – it means losing the freedom to live as we ought to live. Failure to understand this important concept means subjecting our institutions, our businesses, our families, our churches, subjecting even our very selves to the sovereign will, not of God, but of the State. So, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this philosophical discussion – who do we obey when demands of the State and demands of parents or pastors or professors conflict? The answer is: it depends. It depends on whether the parents or the professors or the pastors or the State are authoritative in the sphere in which they are making the demands. This approach to understanding the very limited authority of the State should not be interpreted as a proposal for anarchy. I once swore an oath of allegiance to the country I love, my Canada, an oath which I stand by to this day. I pray for her leaders every day. I strive to obey all her laws. But here’s the rub: when those in power begin to legislate in areas over which they have no jurisdiction, my trust in the government plummets. And when those in power dare to legislate in such a way that I must either obey the State’s law or violate my conscience, then I say loudly with the Apostle Peter, “I must obey God, rather than men.” One key to a free, prosperous, democratic society is for the State to back off from taking authority unto itself that was not its to begin with, to not arrogate unto itself powers which are not its own. When the State learns restraint, we can and do enjoy freedom. When our society and culture recognizes a Sovereign high above the State, as we once did, then we certainly will enjoy freedom. This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue under the title "Whom do you serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power." Illustrations were created by Lynn VanEerden. André Schutten is the Director of Law and Policy for ARPA Canada. POSTSCRIPT: QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER While sphere sovereignty is a helpful tool, like any other tool it has limitations. For example, while the first three “spheres” of Church, State and Family are quite clearly instituted by God, we could have endless debates about just how many other spheres there might be. In Canada we could list the federal government as one sphere, and the provincial governments as another, but what about towns and cities? Do they get their own sphere? Is Academia a sphere? What about the Market? Also, while the spheres are a helpful concept, defining the exact borders between each of them is hard to do. So the author wants to emphasize that this is not meant to be the Reformed paradigm through which Christians ought to view the world, and he welcomes feedback on the ideas expressed here. What is helpful about this model, and how might it be improved? André Schutten talks about the sphere of the Church as separate from Family and State. Where does a mosque, synagogue or temple fit in? God instituted the State, the Church, and the Family, but did He institute the mosque? We don’t think the State should interfere with mosques, synagogues and temples so they do seem to exist in a separate sphere apart from the State, but is that separate sphere grouped with the Church, or is it, perhaps, under the Family? Or might it be something else entirely? In Western countries it often seems the State that is trying to take Christ’s supreme position. What might the interloper be in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran? And if a libertarian were going to make their own sphere sovereignty model, who would they put in place of Christ? ...

Theology

BAPTISM DEBATE: Credo vs. Paedo

On Sept. 27 two Reformed pastors debated “SHOULD WE BAPTIZE INFANTS AS WELL AS ADULTS?” The edited version of this video is now available to watch above. It is approximately 100 minutes, or a little under 2 hours long. 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. Reformed Perspective holds to a paedobaptism position, and in preparation for the debate we’ve shared a list of some of the very best resources available in defense of infant baptism....

Theology

Choosing Evolution: Bad reasons for a big departure

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution is a recent book featuring 25 evangelical theologians and scientists, each taking a chapter to explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully, “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago.” The goal of this book is to reduce the number of evangelicals holding this view. Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. And while each contributor has his or her unique story, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I want to note three major ones. 1. JOHN WALTON'S REINTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1 & 2 John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 was raised by several of the authors, who echoed his argument that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not “how” God did it. Walton claims that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account and that such accounts are only intended to teach the function and purpose of each part of the created world. The origins of the material stuff of creation, and the way the world was brought into being, were not the concern in such accounts. And since, according to Walton, Genesis is like these other ANEs, it wasn’t trying to explain how the world was made either, but was only trying to point to who did it. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 , 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together ANE texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points that don’t fit with his interpretation. He also makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, John Walton has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. As, J.B. Stump, one of the book’s contributors wrote, Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture.” More sophisticated? Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated than that of the average Bible reader. But it’s patently incorrect. 2. THE "TWO BOOKS" ARGUMENT Quite a few of the contributors referred to Scripture and Creation as “two books”: the book of special revelation (the Bible) the book of general revelation (God's Creation) Theologians are said to draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor – of equating certain scientists' conclusions as being God's general revelation, and then calling this "revelation" complementary to the message of Scripture – has been around for some time. It may originate in a misuse of article 2 of the Belgic Confession, where the "the creation, preservation, and government of the universe" is said to be like a "beautiful book." One contributor even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Another says that the “book of works is one that He desires us to take, read, and celebrate.” But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the general revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Ps 19:1-6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). Meanwhile, the discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people, because of sin, suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. 3. STRAW MAN ARGUMENTS Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors themselves highlighted, but rather, something I noticed. It felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance: dinosaurs never existed Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise “Job invented electricity” But these are not the actual arguments used by “young” earth creationists! N.T. Wright’s contribution – an excerpt from one of his books – tries to trivialize the entire young earth position by treating it as if it were merely a tempest in a North American teapot. He speaks as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way. Similarly, another contributor states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be.” I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense. Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C.. In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation – today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Ps 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8. CONCLUSION How I Changed My Mind About Evolution was never intended to marshal all the arguments in favor of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of its publisher BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church.” In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up this collection of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow. They hope to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset. However, the book only leaves me unimpressed, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments, the three that recur the most often in the book, the ones that seem to have opened the way for these 25 evangelicals to change their minds about evolution, turn out to be very bad arguments. A version of this article first appeared at CreationWithoutCompromise.com, Dr. Ted Van Raalte is Professor of Ecclesiology at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary....

Theology

Should a Christian ever be discontent?

She sat across from me, sipping coffee, her forehead wrinkled with unhappiness. She’d struggled for two years in a job that clearly made her miserable, and which everyone else thought she should quit. But she couldn’t quite agree, wondering if there was a reason God had blessed her with the position. “I’m trying so hard to be grateful,” she said. “I just want to be satisfied with what I have.” **** My friend’s words hit me right in my chest. I didn’t know what to say, because I’ve struggled with the exact same issues. When is it okay to give up on the path you’re currently traveling on? When is it okay to quit and change what you’re doing? We know God has a reason for everything He brings into our lives, so doesn’t it just make sense that we should figure out that reason – figure out how to glorify Him in this situation – before we think of moving on to something else? But like so many other situations in life, we often don’t understand the invisible plans of God, or know what His goal is for us in our current season of life. And so we can be left unsure if it is okay to move on to something else, or if God means for us to learn contentment where we are. Often, when we find ourselves feeling like I or my friend felt in that moment – recognizing the strain of dissatisfaction running through our lives – we respond with guilt. We might think this discontent points to a lack in our spiritual lives. But is discontent always wrong? Dissatisfaction certainly can be caused by a spiritual lack. We humans never are satisfied with what we have. We never have enough. If we had the power to change everything in our lives, we still would not feel fulfilled. But this does not mean we should never take our discontentment seriously. Discontent might be the motivation to change something in our lives that needs changing. The value of discontent When we look at other people’s lives, it’s easy to recognize what’s causing them unhappiness, and it’s easy to say they should change these things. In fact, we often wonder why they don’t. This person is still young, so why don’t they try a new career? Or this person has the freedom to move, so why don’t they try living in another city? But when it comes to ourselves, we see how hard it is to justify our choices to make changes. Is “unhappiness” really a good enough reason, when we know we’re called to be content? To get here we've struggled, we've prayed, we've relied on God to achieve things – and by the grace of God we have achieved them. We know, because our strength was so weak and we needed God's strength so much to get where we are today, that our current situation is straight from the hand of God. What we need to know is if we can be grateful for God’s gifts while still choosing for change. No wonder people hesitate to make a change! One way forward is to consider when feelings of discontent have value. This is not to say discontentment should be embraced, but that the feeling can point us to areas of our lives we do actually have power over. So let’s look at discontentment a bit more closely. We shouldn’t be content with just this world First, there are some obvious things God intends for us to be discontent about. We are not supposed to be content with the fallen state of the world. We are supposed to be content that all things are in the hands of God, but we are not supposed to look at injustice be pleased about it. Some of our dissatisfaction points us to the new creation we are looking forward to. When we recognize that we never feel fully fulfilled, we also recognize that we are waiting for eternal fulfillment. We live with “eternity in our hearts” – we have a vision of an ideal kingdom this world cannot live up to. This also means that life’s frustrations, dead ends, and futility were never meant to be part of God’s good creation. No wonder we react so strongly to them. And yet, while we understand this, we also understand God is still holding all the threads of our lives in His hands. We cling to His promise that in him everything that seems meaningless has meaning. We shouldn’t be satisfied burying our talent There’s another aspect of discontentment to consider. Contentment ought to be separated from passivity. A wrong emphasis on contentment can make us believe we’re not allowed to change anything in our lives. But contentment and passivity are not the same thing. Perhaps discontentment may be a challenge to us. We may hide behind “contentment” because we’re afraid to take the risk of change, because we might fail if we try something new. But our dissatisfaction could hint that we are not reaching for goals that we could try to reach. We are not risking the bumps and falls that might develop our skills. Discontentment might tell us we are meant to challenge ourselves. And if we are taking the easier path without really thinking it through, our emotions may be a sign something is wrong. We should consider whether we need to choose a more challenging goal. If we do not separate contentment and passivity, it can result in a fatalistic determinism. We might conclude that wherever we happen to be, that is where God placed us so it must be where He wants us to be, and therefore we should be content. But this cuts off the possibility that God also blesses us with opportunities. Determinism leads us to say—You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just happen if it’s meant to be. But clearly this is an unbiblical message. Learning contentment from Paul Contentment is still a good thing, and it is a virtue to be pursued in our lives. After much struggle, I’ve realized that while there may be something behind the vague sense of discontent that so often crops up in our lives, and that these reasons can be addressed, contentment is still the goal, not discontent. How, then, should we pursue contentment while avoiding utter passivity? There are a few things to keep in mind. Content even as we strive First, contentment is about where you are in the present moment. It is not a denial of any change in the future. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Having a goal does imply you expect to cause change in the future. So perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact turn out to be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words – strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you. Content in suffering Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including the contentment passage in Philippians 4 (“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”), is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, “don’t change your life path,” but rather, “I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.” These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God – whether in chains or free, whether rich or poor – no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none! We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation. Content when we have choices and when we don’t We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices – we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything. But rather than arriving at this conclusion and automatically accepting it, we should think about whether this is really correct. We are to be content in situations we can’t change, including those which are really, really hard. But our contentment in the present moment doesn’t prevent us moving from one choice to another in the future. Second, we often think contentment means being stationary unless we’re sure God means for us to move. But Paul did not always sit and wait until absolutely sure that God was sending him somewhere else. If he was called by the Spirit he followed, but he continued to work and preach in all places while waiting for the Spirit’s call. He often made plans to go to different places, or to start new missions. When the Spirit of God prevented him from preaching throughout Asia Minor, he continued trying in place after place until he reached the sea – only then did he realized he was being called to Macedonia. In other words, sometimes we are not sure what we should do, but we do not necessarily have to wait for a firm confirmation from God before every action. Content in the day-to-day faithfulness Lastly, we are often discontent with our lives not because of the goals but because of the mundane tasks and the drudgery. Our actions seem so little, and so dull. We cry, like me and my friend did when we were having coffee, “I just want to work in God’s kingdom!” But perhaps the cathedral builders did the same, as they painstakingly placed stone on stone for hundreds of years, unable to see the buildings we’d gasp at in wonder today. Perhaps our grandparents did the same as they struggled to get their children to listen to a Bible story, not knowing if the generations who’d follow would do the same. When we ask God to use our lives according to His plans, we sometimes suppress a fear that God doesn’t want us to go anywhere, or do anything. This is our fear when we walk into the office and face a mountain of paperwork that needs to be done but hardly seems worthwhile – am I really contributing to God’s kingdom, we wonder? But our God is not a God of waste. If we are to be ordinary, it will be worthwhile. Our call to contentment brings us to a new understanding, where ordinary labour is not undervalued. We are not pressured to all conform to the mould of world-changer. We can put our hand to the task in front of us without fear our efforts will be washed from the earth, because we know they’re seen by the eyes of God. Conclusion What, then, is contentment? First, it is a focus on the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the world. It shifts our focus from yearning for the things of this world, such as money, fame, or power. We can trust there are eternal things that we are building, and contentment means that we can rest. Second, it is not a struggle with God over what can’t change. While we are not called to passivity, in our lives we will sometimes be told “no.” This is where we are most often tempted to fight, not necessarily with our actions, but with a rebellious spirit that insists on despising the situation forced on us. Only by looking to God in His Word and in prayer will we find the strength to turn back to contentment again. When my friend and I left the cafe, our lives were still the same as when we had come in. Yet somehow Christian company and very good coffee gave us new capacity to rest in the goodness of God. Harma-Mae Smit blogs at  HarmaMaeSmit.com. ...

Adult non-fiction, Theology

Calvinist vs. Arminian: a tale of two books

Why revisit the debate between Arminianism and Calvinism? Isn't it a waste of precious time to discuss these differences even as the world is aflame with political unrest? No, this is a debate that should always generate interest and discussion. Dr. J. I. Packer once observed that the very terms Calvinism and Arminianism represent opposition: “The words are defined in terms of the antithesis, and the point is pressed that no Christian can avoid being on one side or the other." Arminianism had considerable influence in Anglo-American theological developments and, on the surface, Calvinism might seem to have lost the battle in the theatre of American evangelicalism. Many evangelicals even believe that Calvinism is “irrelevant.” They say, “Christianity cannot possibly teach that.” With a commitment to egalitarianism and the rejection of the traditional doctrine of original sin, American culture is receptive to Arminianism. The Arminian emphasis on individualism and self-determination dominated much of 20th century American evangelicalism. Billy Graham, for instance, uses the language of Arminianism in his crusades when he asks attendees to "make a decision for Christ" – language that Calvinists find utterly foreign to their understanding of salvation. Revival of Calvinism So it seems clear that Calvinism does not fit the American ideal. Why would anyone be a Calvinist then? The reason is quite simple. The gospel of Jesus Christ is countercultural. Perhaps this is why Calvinism seems to appeal to young people, especially college students. There is also a renewed interest in Calvinism among the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. What is at stake? But why should we know the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism? Because they represent stark opposing theological visions, at the heart of which are profoundly different views of God. Two books, published as a set of sorts, highlight just how profound the differences are: What I am not a Calvinist, by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and Why I am not an Arminian by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. The authors of Why I am not a Calvinist believe: “...the heart of the matter is how we understand the character of God. The issue is not how powerful God is but what it means to say he is perfectly loving and good.....The breathtaking vision of God's Trinitarian love is obscured by the Calvinist claim that God passes over persons he could just as easily save and thereby consigns them to eternal misery." The following questions then, are at issue: How are we saved from our sins and granted eternal life? Are human beings so fallen that they must be saved exclusively through the unilateral and unconditional actions of God? Is it possible for human beings to successfully resist the saving approaches of God's grace? Can any who were once truly redeemed through faith in Christ fail to receive final salvation? The tone of the debate Considering the seriousness of the differences, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the history of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has been one of intense and often "mean-spirited" confrontation. However, Why I am not an Arminian's authors aims to treat their Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ as they would want to be treated. They also note that the Synod of Dordt was right to condemn the Arminian misrepresentation of the saving ways of God. "Yet we do not think of Arminianism as a heresy or Arminian Christians as unregenerate." They observe that Calvinists and Arminians are brothers in Christ. In other words: “The issue of the debate is not between belief and unbelief but rather which of two Christian perspectives better represents the biblical portrayal of the divine-human relationship in salvation and the contribution of both God and man in human history." And Why I am not a Calvinist authors rightly say, "We should all speak with a measure of care and reserve when delivering our interpretative conclusions." Why I am not a Calvinist So what type of argument do the authors Why I am not a Calvinist make? They first provide some background. Arminianism has its roots in the work of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). It teaches that salvation is available to anybody who exercises faith; it contrasts with the Calvinist understanding that God alone determines who is and who is not among the elect. Arminian popular belief tends toward the overestimation of human ability and the human redemptive contribution. Traditional Arminianism believes that the death of Christ provides grace for all persons and that, as result of his atonement, God extends sufficient grace to all persons through the Holy Spirit to counteract the influence of sin and to enable a response to God. But, they argue, it is possible for sinners to resist God's initiative and to persist in sin and rebellion. Arminianism believes that God's grace enables and encourages a positive and saving response for everyone, but it does not determine a saving response for anyone. Furthermore, an initial positive response of faith doesn't guarantee one's final salvation: “It is possible to begin a genuine relationship with God but then later turn from him and persist in evil so that one is finally lost.” In 1610, the disciples of Jacobus Arminius produced a manifesto called the Remonstrance, which they regarded as a corrective to the Calvinist doctrine of election. The authors view the divine election of Israel and Christ as “that tree of redemption into which all persons can be incorporated by faith.” They state: “God doesn't unconditionally predestine particular persons to salvation. Rather, election is in Christ, and all are saved who do not knowingly and persistently refuse God's gracious offer of life.” Interestingly, Why I am not Calvinist's authors go beyond traditional Arminianism, and seem favorably inclined to Openness Theology, also called Open Theism. Advocates of Open Theism have argued that while God knows everything that can be known, He cannot have exhaustively definite knowledge of the future. Since the future will involve decisions made by genuinely free creatures, knowledge of the future is said to be impossible, by definition. Since God doesn't know future free choices, the future is not completely settled. Clark Pinnock, a noted Open Theism advocate says, “Some prophecies are conditional, leaving the future open, and presumably, God's knowledge of it.” And Richard Rice argues, "Where human decision is presupposed, God cannot achieve his purpose unilaterally. He requires our cooperation.” Open Theist theologians acknowledge “the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all,” but in His freedom and desire to enter into a relationship of love with humanity has “decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions.” They also believe that God is “dependent on the world in certain respects.” Consequently, they propose that the traditional view of God's infallible foreknowledge is a conviction that should be dispensed with. Open Theist theologians seem to highly esteem people while limiting God. For example, according to Pinnock human freedom can be won only by surrendering divine foreknowledge. I agree with those theologians who call Open Theism radicalized Arminianism. And if our future free actions cannot be known with certainty, even by God, how can we believe in the fulfillment of prophecy? Why would God "promise" anything if He cannot know the future or guarantee it by His almighty power? For the authors, the doctrine of election does not seem to hold any mystery. In fact, an appeal to mystery scandalizes them. They claim that some Calvinists “make a hasty retreat to mystery” when faced with charges of inconsistency. And they argue, “It isn't a sign of true piety for one to be willing to dispense with logical coherence in the name of mystery.” They critique John Piper's declaration that the potter has absolute rights over the clay, and if God chooses not to save some persons, it is not for us to understand but simply to adore. Interestingly, on the one hand the authors state that Calvinists have been zealous evangelists and missionaries and have contributed powerfully to the cause of winning the lost for Christ. On the other hand, they argue that Calvinists can't make coherent sense of their claim that God makes a bona fide offer of salvation to persons he has not elected for salvation, nor can they explain how God can truly have compassion for such persons. They claim, “the consequences for evangelistic preaching are profound indeed.” Why I am not an Arminian What are the counter arguments from the authors of Why I am not an Arminian? In their carefully reasoned, understandable exposition of Calvinism, they address the historical context, theological concerns, and biblical texts in a readable manner. In fact, they are Bible-centered in their presentation. They point out that the question of ecclesiastical authority and the integrity of the church as a confessional body was an intense bone of contention for both sides in the struggle between the Calvinists and the Arminians within the Dutch church. The Calvinists argued that a Reformed church is a confessional church. Hence they pleaded for the maintenance of particular confessional standards. Following in the tradition of Erasmus of Rotterdam, however, the Arminians championed the liberty of the individual conscience relative to doctrinal standards. The authors show that Calvin was not the first one to talk about reprobation or the absolute sovereignty of God. They point to the church father Augustine who emphasized the utter dependence of man upon God alone for salvation and the supremacy of grace to the exclusion of all human contribution. His teaching has proven a problem for many Christians throughout the centuries, and it still lies at the heart of the Arminian rejection of Calvinism, which was in many ways a 16th century revival of Augustine's teaching on sin and grace. The authors show that Calvinism stands for the doctrine that all humankind is sinful. Human beings will not and cannot make their way to God, retrieve their own lives or earn their own salvation. If humankind is to be saved, God must act. God must be gracious. Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all. He has not chosen to be gracious to all human beings. Sovereign in His grace, God showered His redemptive love upon a Jacob but not on an Esau. It is a mistake, therefore, to pit individual and corporate election against each other. In other words, egalitarian fairness – treating all persons the same – may be a cultural ideal for the modern West, but there is no biblical reason to suppose that God shares it. The authors write: "For his own reasons, God assumes the right to save one and not another – a Jacob, for example, and not his older, more talented brother; for Esau, left to himself and his sinfulness, is deserving divine wrath.” Why does God elect some and others are passed by? God does not elect Abraham and Jacob based on foreseen merit or even foreseen faith. The basis of their election is God's love and will. The authors also show that both individual and corporate election are taught in the Old Testament. God chose Abraham and Jacob, also the nation of Israel. As fallen human beings, Calvinists struggle with a sovereignty that stretches and often transcends our abilities to discern the redemptive ways of God. Scripture leads us to the contention that divine sovereignty – God always prevails – is compatible with human freedom. God is not rendered idle by a world ruled by human freedom. Furthermore, in the new heaven and earth: “the ultimate life of the redeemed will not include libertarian freedom, the ability to choose sin rather than obedience, apostasy rather than faithfulness.” The authors also show that Calvinism is much broader in scope than the TULIP doctrine. The five points of Calvinism do not sufficiently define Calvinism, and certainly do not say all there is to be said about the Reformed faith. They affirm the five points of Calvinism but also a Reformed understanding of the church and sacraments. They explain the particular Reformed contribution to Christian reflection on the covenant and the kingdom of God. They also stress the church as the people of God with a call to seek a cultural life in the world that is typified by justice, mercy, and a transformational vision for individual vocational life. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that not all believe. One person hears the gospel as the word of life; another sees it as foolishness. But the authors of Why I am not a Calvinist critique Piper's rejection of "the wider hope," which holds that saving grace is available to all persons, not just those who have heard the gospel in this life. The Cannons of Dordt follow Augustine in their explanation. God has sovereignly chosen to save some but not all. And unlike Arminianism, Calvinism believes in the perseverance of the saints. The Canons of Dordt judged the Arminian agnosticism regarding perseverance as a hopeless position. If our salvation depends on us, whether it be our merits, our will or even our striving to keep in step with God's grace, we are most surely lost. The authors of Why I am not a Calvinist claim that an emphasis on God's sovereignty in salvation hinders evangelism, yet that emphasis encouraged the apostle Paul to continue preaching. In the line of Paul, Calvinists believe that the message of the cross is to be presented to all in order that they may believe and be pardoned. The good news of a provided forgiveness is to be as universally proclaimed as is the command to repent. God commands us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and to every person in it. The Synod of Dordt did not see the doctrine of particular atonement as compromising preaching in the slightest. "God wants all to hear the gospel, but He intends to save only some. Why that is the case, we don't know." As evidence of the compatibility of belief in limited atonement, and a fire for spreading the gospel, Calvinists can refer to Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles H. Spurgeon and Francis Schaeffer. They proclaimed a redemption that is definite and yet good news and offered an invitation addressed to all. Much more can be said about the differences between Calvinism and Arminians. I hope that this summary review will enhance our readers' love for our Calvinist heritage and the rich doctrines of sovereign grace. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many more of his articles can be found on his blog Reformed Reflections....

Theology

How are we to understand the Bible?

3 approaches to consider: foundationalism, postmodernism, and something in between ***** Some years ago I attended a three-day conference on the topic how to read the Bible. Actually, the conference organizers used a big name for the topic: hermeneutics. But they explained what they meant with the term: how does one correctly handle the Word of truth in today’s postmodern world? The conference included professors from three different seminaries. Half a dozen winged their way across the Atlantic, from the Theological University in Kampen. This university trains ministers for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Two professors from Mid-America Reformed Seminary (MARS) in Dyer, Indiana – which contributes to the ministerial supply in the United Reformed Churches – braved wintery roads to add their contribution. The host was the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, whose faculty also did what they could to supply a clear answer to that vital question. Conference background I am a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches, which has Dutch roots. Specifically, many of our parents or grandparents were once members of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. There is, then, a very strong historic and emotional bond between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The reason for the conference was the concerns, slowly growing in our churches, about developments we saw happening in these Dutch churches in general and in the Theological University in particular. Given the historic link between these two denominations, it was considered right before God to do a conference with these men in order to understand better what the Kampen men were thinking, and to remind each other of what the Lord Himself says on the subject. How does one read the Bible? There was some common ground. All agreed that the Bible comes from God Himself, so that what is written on its pages does not come from human imagination or study, but comes from the Mind of holy God Himself. So the Bible contains no mistakes; whatever it says is the Truth. Yet this Word of God is not given to us in some unclear divine language, but infinite God has been pleased to communicate in a fashion finite people can understand – somewhat like parents simplifying their language to get across to their toddler. As we read the Bible, then, the rules common for reading a newspaper article, a book, or even this article apply – i.e., you get the sense of a particular word or sentence from the paragraph or page in which it’s written, and when some word or sentence is confusing you interpret the harder stuff in the light of easier words or sentences elsewhere in the article. That’s the plain logic of reading we all use. So far the professors of Kampen and Hamilton and MARS were all agreed. Genesis 1 Differences arose, however, when it came to what you do with what a given text says. In the previous paragraph I made reference to a “toddler.” We all realize that the use of that word does not make this an article about how to raise toddlers. Genesis 1 uses the word “create.” Does that mean that that chapter of Scripture is about how the world got here? We’ve learned to say that yes, Genesis 1 certainly tells us about our origin. (And we have good reason for saying that, because that’s the message you come away with after a plain reading of the chapter; besides, that’s the way the 4th commandment reads Genesis 1, and it’s how Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul, etc, read Genesis 1.) But the Kampen professors told us not to be so fast in jumping to that conclusion. Genesis 1, they said, isn’t about how we got here, but it is instead instruction to Israel at Mt. Sinai about how mighty God is not the author of evil. Just like you cannot go to the Bible to learn how to raise toddlers (because that’s not what the Bible is about; you need to study pedagogy for that – the example is mine), so you cannot go to the Bible to find out how the world got here – because that’s not what Genesis 1 is about, and so it’s not a fair question we should ask Genesis 1 to answer. Or so they argued. 1 Timothy 2 A second example that illustrates how the Dutch professors were thinking comes from their treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12-13. These verses record Paul’s instruction: “12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve….” This passage was featured on the conference program because a report had recently surfaced within the Dutch churches arguing that it’s Biblical to ordain sisters of the congregation to the offices of minister, elder and deacon. 1 Timothy 2 would seem to say the opposite. So: how do you read 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify the conclusion that women may be ordained to the offices of the church? The Dutch brethren answered the question like this: when Paul wrote the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2, the culture Timothy lived in did not tolerate women in positions of leadership. If Paul in that situation had permitted women to teach in church or to have authority over men, he would have placed an unnecessary obstacle on the path of unbelievers to come to faith. Our western culture today, however, gives women a very inclusive role in public leadership. If we today, then, ban them from the offices of the church, we would place an obstacle in the path of modern people on their journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Had Paul written his letter to the church in Hamilton today, he would have written vs. 12 to say that women would be permitted to teach and to have authority over men. That conviction, of course, raises the question of what you do with the “for” with which vs. 13 begins. Doesn’t the word “for” mean that Paul is forming his instruction about the woman’s silence on how God created people in the beginning – Adam first, then Eve? Well, we were told, with vs. 13 Paul is indeed referring back to Genesis 1 & 2, but we need to be very careful in how we work with that because we’re reading our own understandings of Genesis 1 & 2 into Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2, and we may be incorrect in how we understand those chapters from Genesis. So vs. 13 doesn’t help us understand vs. 12. Or so they argued. Confused… I struggled to get my head around how brothers who claim to love the Lord and His Word could argue for such positions. A speech on the third day of the Conference, by one of the Dutch professors, helped to clarify things for me. The audience was told that the old way of reading the Bible might be called “foundationalism,” describing the notion that you read God’s commands and instructions (eg, any of the Ten Commandments), and transfer that instruction literally into today so that theft or adultery or dishonoring your parents is taboo. This manner of reading the Bible does not go down well with postmodern people, because it implies that there are absolutes that you have to obey. The alternative is to disregard the Bible altogether and adopt “relativism,” where there are no rules for right and wrong at all – and that’s obviously wrong. So, we were told, we need to find a third way between “foundationalism” and “relativism.” This third way would have us be familiar with the Scriptures, but instead of transferring a command of long ago straight into today’s context, we need to meditate on old time revelation and trust that as we do so the Lord will make clear what His answers are for today’s questions. If the cultural circumstances surrounding a command given long ago turns out to be very similar to cultural circumstances of today, we may parachute the command directly into today and insist it be obeyed. But if the circumstances differ, we may not simply impose God’s dated commands on obedience or on theft or on homosexuality into today. Instead, with an attitude of humility and courage we need to listen to what God is today saying – and then listen not just to the Bible but also to culture, research, science, etc. After prayerfully meditating on the Scripture-in-light-of-lessons-from-culture-and-research, we may well end up concluding that we need to accept that two men love both each other and Jesus Christ. That conclusion may differ from what we’ve traditionally thought the Lord wanted of us, but a right attitude before the Lord will let us be okay with conclusions we’ve not seen in Scripture before. Analysis This speech about the “third way” helped clarify for me why the Dutch professors could say what they did about Genesis 1 and 1 Timothy 2. They were seeking to listen to Scripture as well as to what our culture and science, etc, were saying, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sought to come to the will of the Lord for today’s questions. To insist that Genesis 1 is God’s description about how we got here (creation by divine fiat) leads to conclusions that fly in the face of today’s science and/or evolutionary thinking – and so we must be asking the wrong questions about Genesis 1; it’s not about how we got here…. To insist that 1 Timothy 2 has something authoritative to say about the place of women is to place us on ground distinctly out of step with our society – and so we must be reading 1 Timothy 2 wrongly. As a result of deep meditation on Scripture plus input from culture etc, these men have concluded that God leads us to condoning women in office in our culture, accepting a very old age for the earth, and leaving room for homosexual relationships in obedient service to the Lord. This, it seems to me, is the enthronement of people’s collective preferences over the revealed Word of God. Our collective will, even when it is renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit, remains “inclined to all evil” (Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 60; cf Romans 7:15,18). There certainly are questions arising from today’s culture that do not have answers written in obvious command form in Scripture, and so we undoubtedly need to do some humble and prayerful research and thinking on those questions. But the Bible is distinctly clear (not only in Genesis 1) about where we come from, and distinctly clear too (not only in 1 Timothy 2) about the place of women, and distinctly clear also on homosexuality. To plead that we need different answers today than in previous cultures lest the Bible’s teachings hinder unbelievers from embracing the gospel is to ignore that Jeremiah and Micah and Jesus and Paul and James and every other prophet and apostle had to insist on things that were “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). One questioner from the audience hit the nail on the head: the Dutch brethren were adapting their method of reading the Bible to produce conclusions accommodated to our culture. Where does this leave us? There was a time when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and their Theological University in Kampen were a source of much wisdom and encouragement in searching the Scriptures. Given that all the men from Kampen spoke more or less the same language at the Hermeneutics Conference, it is clear to me that those days are past. It was fitting that at the Conference we prayed together as brothers in the Lord, but it’s also clear that we now need to pray that the Lord have mercy on the Dutch sister churches – for this is how their (future) ministers are being taught to deal with Scripture. I was very grateful to note that the professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (and MARS too, for that matter) all spoke uniformly in their rejection of Kampen’s way of reading the Bible. They insisted unequivocally that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession, I.6). Postmodernism does not pass us by. May the Lord give us grace to keep believing that His Word is authoritative, clear and true. A version of this article first appeared on the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church blog where Rev. Bouwman is a pastor of the Word....

Adult non-fiction, Theology

Heaven: what can we know?

A summary review of Randy Alcorn's Heaven **** Christians don't seem to speak about Heaven as much as in the past. There is more interest in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth than in preparing for the afterlife. SLOPPY THINKING When Christians do think about Heaven, they seem disconnected from the Scriptures. According to popular thought, where Christians go when they die is the same place they will spend eternity. Even contemporary believers base their thinking on Heaven more on sloppy, syrupy, sentimental television programs than on any clear teaching of Scripture. There is a hint in our attitude toward Heaven that it will be "angelic," that we will end up playing harps on a misty cloud in the "heavens." We will be wearing long white robes, and talking pious talk forever and ever. Some even picture Heaven as a boring place. But these conventional caricatures of Heaven do a terrible disservice to God and adversely affect our relationship with Him. Heaven is not a sing-along in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever. Hell will be deadly boring. Heaven is exciting! Everything good, enjoyable, refreshing, fascinating, and interesting is derived from God. When we have an infinity of newness to explore, we can never be bored. THINKING ABOUT HEAVEN 560 pages / 2004 So why think about Heaven? Because the Scriptures remind us to think on things above. Doing so gives us insight into the brevity of our time on Earth and the value of life eternal. The doctrine of Heaven, then, should not be marginalized by the church. Rather, it should be preached, taught, studied, and loved. In calling us to this end, theologian/novelist Randy Alcorn, prolific author, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries, has made a beautifully written contribution with his book Heaven. Is Heaven a real place? It's as real as a morning cup of coffee. Ah, but will we drink coffee in Heaven? Alcorn asks, "Can you think of any persuasive reason why coffee trees and coffee drinking wouldn't be part of the resurrected Earth?" His answer? "No." Despite biblical references that this Heaven and Earth will pass away, Alcorn strongly argues – from Scripture, word studies, and historical theology – that the "destruction" of the current Heaven and Earth will be temporary and partial. He firmly believes in the literal fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies about the Messiah's second coming and the New Earth because Isaiah's detailed prophecies regarding the Messiah's first coming were literally fulfilled. The ultimate fulfillment of hosts of Old Testament prophecies will be on the New Earth, where the people of God will "possess the land forever" (Isaiah 60:21). Alcorn states, therefore, that God never gave up on his original plan for human beings to dwell on Earth. In fact, the climax of history will be the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth, a resurrected universe inhabited by resurrected people living with the resurrected Jesus. THE RESURRECTION The key to understanding the New Earth is the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are told that Jesus' resurrected body on Earth was physical, and that this same physical Jesus ascended to Heaven, from which he will one day return to Earth (Acts 1:11). Alcorn states that the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of redemption – both for mankind and for the earth. Indeed, without Christ's resurrection and what it means – an eternal future for fully restored human beings dwelling on a fully restored Earth – there is no Christianity. Because we know that Christ's resurrected body is physical and that our resurrected bodies will be like his, there isn't a compelling reason to assume that other physical depictions of the New Earth must be figurative. Consequently, the predominant belief that the ultimate Heaven that God prepares for us will be unearthly could not be more unbiblical. Earth was made for people to live on, and people were made to live on Earth. Alcorn also believes that Christ's redemptive work extends resurrection to the far reaches of the universe. "The power of Christ's resurrection is enough not only to remake us, but also to remake every inch of the universe – mountains, rivers, plants, animals, stars, nebulae, quasars, and galaxies." THE INTERMEDIATE STATE Christians often think about Heaven as their final destination. However, this belief is not based on Scripture. Alcorn explains the difference between the present (or intermediate) Heaven, where Christians go when they die, and the ultimate, eternal Heaven, where God will dwell with his people on the New Earth. When we die in Christ we will not go to Heaven where we'll live forever. Instead, we'll go to an intermediate Heaven. In the intermediate Heaven, we'll wait for the time of Christ's return to Earth, our bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the creation of the New Heaven and New Earth. The intermediate Heaven, then, is a temporary dwelling place, a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth. In the intermediate Heaven, being with God and seeing His face is its central joy and the source of all other joys. We will be fully conscious, rational, and aware of each other. We will know what is happening on Earth. We will be distinct individuals, living in anticipation of the future fulfillment of God's promises. We will be reunited with believing friends and family. We will be one big family. We will be aware of the passing of time. But we will never be all that God has intended for us to be until body and spirit are again joined in the resurrection. CHRISTOPLATONISM Why do we find it so difficult to grasp that the intermediate Heaven is not our final destination? Alcorn rightly blames the influence of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato believed that material things, including the human body and the Earth, are evil, while immaterial things, such as the soul and Heaven, are good. He asserted that the spirit's highest destiny is to be forever free from the body. This view is called Platonism. The Christian church, highly influenced by Platonism, came to embrace the "spiritual" view that human spirits are better off without bodies and that Heaven is, therefore, a disembodied state. From a christoplatonic perspective, therefore, our souls merely occupy our bodies, like a hermit crab inhabits a seashell, and our souls could naturally – or even ideally – live in a disembodied state. Christoplatonism has had a devastating effect on our ability to understand what Scripture says about Heaven, particularly about the eternal Heaven, the New Earth. The Bible, however, contradicts Christoplatonism from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It says that God is the Creator of body and spirit; both were marred by sin, and both were redeemed by Christ. THE NEW HEAVEN AND EARTH  The New Heaven and Earth is a real, tangible place. The New Earth has dirt, water, rocks, trees, flowers, animals, people, rain, snow, wind, and a variety of natural wonders. An Earth without these would not be Earth. Alcorn believes there will be animals from various nations. He believes these animals have souls, though not the same type as humans. Alcorn firmly believes that we will be eating and drinking in the New Earth. However, there won't be marriages. Alcorn notes that the institution of marriage will have fulfilled its purpose. The only marriage will be between Christ and His bride – and we'll be part of it. The city at the centre of the New Earth is called the New Jerusalem. The ground level of the city will be nearly two million miles. Alcorn suggests that we will walk on streets of real gold. The New Jerusalem will be a place of extravagant beauty and natural wonders. It will be a vast Eden, integrated with the best of human culture, under the reign of Christ. More wealth than has been accumulated in all human history will be spread freely across this immense city. We will also have our own homes. In this New Earth we will also enjoy periods of rest. Alcorn says that God prescribed rest for sinless Adam and Eve, and He prescribed it for those under the curse of sin. Hence, regular rest will be part of the life to come in the new universe. Alcorn argues that there will be a government on the New Earth. The need of government didn't come about as a result of sin. God governed the universe before Satan fell. Likewise, He created mankind as his image-bearers, with the capacity for ruling, and before Adam and Eve sinned, God specifically commanded them to rule the Earth. On the New Earth there will be no sin. Therefore, all ruling will be just and benevolent, devoid of abuse, corruption, or lust for power. As co-rulers with Christ, we'll share in the glory of the sovereign ruler himself. We will become the stewards, the managers of the world's wealth and accomplishments. Alcorn believes in the transformation of the entire universe. If the new creation is indeed a resurrected version of the old, then there will be a New Venus, after all. In the same way that the New Earth will be refashioned and still be a true Earth, with continuity to the old, the new cosmic heavens will likewise be the old renewed. It will provide unimaginable territories for us to explore and establish dominion over them to God's glory. And if Christ expands His rule by creating new worlds, whom will He send to govern them on his behalf? His redeemed people. Some may rule over towns, some cities, some planets, some solar systems or galaxies. Alcorn comments, "Sound far-fetched? Not if we understand Scripture and science." CULTURE Alcorn notes that Scripture is clear that in some form, at least, what's done on Earth to Christ's glory will survive. But he also argues that cultural products of once pagan nations will be brought in by its people "proclaiming the praise of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). Treasures that were once linked to idolatry and rebellion will be gathered into the city and put to God-glorifying use. Alcorn believes that Isaiah and Revelation indicate that these products of human culture will play an important role on the New Earth. But the idea of bringing into the New Heaven and Earth cultural products is also a much-disputed idea. Will we still want these treasures when our whole environment will be different? He says that there will be technology, machinery, business, and commerce. There will be music, dancing, storytelling, art, entertainment, drama, and books. We will design crafts, technology, and new modes of travel. We will not only work in the New Earth, we will keep on learning. Alcorn looks forward to reading nonfiction books that depict the character of God and the wonders of his universe. "I'm eager to read new biographies and fiction that tell powerful redemptive stories, moving our hearts to worship God." Interestingly, he also believes that the Bible will be in Heaven. "Presumably, we will read, study, contemplate, and discuss God's Word." But why would there be a Bible in Heaven? The Bible serves God's people in this world as a guide for their lives and to strengthen their faith. In Heaven there is no need for the Bible. We see then God face to face. We witness then the fulfillment of His promises. ETERNAL REWARDS  Alcorn argues that God will hand out different rewards and positions. He says that our works do not affect our salvation, but they do affect our rewards. The rewards hinge on specific acts of faithfulness on Earth that survive the believer's judgment and are brought into Heaven with us. Alcorn believes that the position of authority and the treasures we're granted in Heaven will perpetually remind us of our life on Earth, because what we do on Earth will earn us those rewards. IMAGINATION AND SPECULATION Alcorn asserts that God expects us to use our imagination in describing Heaven, even as we recognize its limitations and flaws. He states that because the Bible gives a clear picture of the resurrection and of earthly civilization in the eternal state, he is walking through a door of imagination that Scripture itself opens. He writes: "If God didn't want us to imagine what Heaven will be like, he wouldn't have told us as much about it as he has." But at times his imagination gets the best of him. He repeatedly uses the words "perhaps" and "speculation." For example, he claims that perhaps intermediate bodies in the intermediate Heaven – or at least a physical form of some sort – serve as bridges between our present bodies and our resurrected bodies. He suggests that our guardian angels or loved ones already in Heaven will be assigned to tutor us. We could also discuss ministry ideas with Luis Palau, Billy Graham, or Chuck Colson. He also argues that we will explore space. He suggests that to view the new heavens, we might travel to the far side of the moon and other places where stargazing is unhindered by light and atmospheric distortions. HEAVENLY MINDED. EARTHLY GOOD.  Thinking about Heaven should impact the way we live on Earth. Alcorn comments that understanding Heaven doesn't just tell us what to do, but why. It is an incentive for righteous living to the glory of God. Anticipating our homecoming will motivate us to live spotless lives here and now. In other words, what God tells us about our future lives enables us to interpret our past and serve Him in our present life. EVALUATION Alcorn quotes frequently from the writings of many Reformed authors, including Francis Schaeffer, Al Wolters, Anthony Hoekema, Herman Ridderbos, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Cornelis Venema, Paul Marshall and Richard Mouw. He is also greatly indebted to the writings of C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer. His work clearly shows the impact these scholars made on him. But Alcorn also adds his own perspectives on the life to come. He writes: "I will try to make the case carefully and biblically. There is plenty in this book for everyone to disagree with." I have already stated a few of my disagreements, so let me now state a few more. Alcorn overly quotes from his own writings. His "works equal rewards" theology is questionable. I can't find any Biblical support for his suggestion that God might create new beings for us to rule over in the afterlife. The rich concept of Sabbath rest gets short thrift – rest is not something physical; it is spiritual. It is not negative, what we do or not do, but positive, something we have. This rest is a gift from God, something we enjoy in close association with Him. I suggest that Alcorn thinks about Heaven too much from an egocentric viewpoint – focusing in on what interests us the most. With all the discussions of what we may do in Heaven, we easily forget that Heaven is the place of habitation of the Triune God. I also have questions about the purpose of Alcorn's speculations. We must not say more than Scripture. God has not revealed to us what the new cosmos will be like. We don't know anything about extra-territorial space travel. We easily forget that the apostle Paul says: "No eye has seen no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9,10). But my critical observations don't take away the appreciation I have for Alcorn's work. He gives new insights, and makes you think about the best that is yet to come for God's people. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections. This article first appeared in the 2005 July/August issue....

Theology

The problem with "pan-millennialism"

“I’m not amillennial, postmillennial, or premillennial. I’m pan-millennial.” “Huh?” “Yep, I’m pan-millennial—I believe it will all pan out in the end!” I’ve occasionally heard this humorous remark made when the end times are discussed. Technically, if we believe in the biblical gospel, we should all be panmillennialists. The risen and ascended Christ will return and everything will “pan out” for believers who will ultimately enjoy “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). But the person who tells the “panmillennial” joke, and really means it, isn’t interested in details about the end times. He realizes that eschatology (the study of last things) is loaded with difficulties, and says, “I’m not going to think much about end times doctrine anymore. Jesus is going to make everything right when He comes again, and that’s good enough for me.” This man hasn’t just given up on figuring out what “a thousand years” means in Revelation 20, but has decided that thinking about the end times beyond generalities is just too hard and ultimately fruitless. There’s a major problem with the panmillennial mindset. The Bible does speak about the particulars of the end times, so to ignore those verses is to disregard what the Holy Spirit made sure was included. Furthermore, when we skip over those passages, we lose more than just knowledge. God has spoken in understandable ways about the end times to give us hope and joy Transforming grief The Thessalonian believers enthusiastically awaited the return of Christ (1 Thess 1:9-10). But after Paul was forced out of town by persecution, some believers died, sending the remaining Christians into a state of hopeless grief (4:13). They didn’t just miss the deceased believers, but apparently thought the dead believers would miss out on some blessing at Christ’s return. Paul addressed the Thessalonians’ ignorance by speaking of some of the details about the day of Christ’s return. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, he gave an order of some of the events of that day: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.” In the first frame of a Peanuts comic strip, Lucy is looking out the window and says, “Boy, look at it rain… What if it floods the whole world?” Linus responds, “It will never do that…In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that it would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow.” Lucy replies, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind…” So Linus concludes, “Sound theology has a way of doing that!” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead in order to give them sound theology so they could take a great load off of their minds. They needed to know that their beloved sleeping believers (4:13) wouldn’t miss anything when Jesus came back. Instead, they would have front-row seats! With that kind of information, their grief would undergo a dramatic transformation. Paul refused to ignore the details about the return of Christ in addressing the Thessalonians, because he understood how relevant and encouraging that information really was. He even charged them to “encourage one another with these words” (4:18). What words? The specific words about the believers who had died and their participation in the events surrounding Christ’s return. Blessed is the one… Revelation is full of end times information, yet it is one of the most neglected books of the Bible due to interpretive difficulties. However, in his opening comments John promises, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (1:3). We should humbly admit when we are confused about certain aspects of Christ’s return. Yet, not everything that God has said about the end times is puzzling. Read those verses carefully and thoughtfully, and blessing is sure to follow. Copyright © 2013 Steve Burchett (www.BulletinInserts.org). Permission granted for reproduction in exact form....

Theology

After Evolution: 4 Reformed figures who accepted evolution and kept on moving

What follows are very brief bios of four prominent Reformed figures who have accepted evolution and gone on to accept increasingly unorthodox positions. Peter Enns Enns once taught at Westminster Theological Seminary (1994- 2008) from where the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) gets many of their ministerial candidates. After accepting evolution, he now has a very different understanding of the Bible, claiming, “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” He's also promoted homosexuality on his blog, and noted that embracing evolution and homosexuality both require the same sort of "disassembling" of how we once read the Bible. Howard Van Till Van Till taught at the Christian Reformed Calvin College (1967-1998) and was for a time one of the best-known Reformed defenders of evolution. He no longer holds to the Reformed confessions and, according to a 2008 piece in The Grand Rapids Press, seems to have migrated to some form of pantheism, seeing “God not as a transcendent, separate creator, but an active presence within and inseparable from creation.” Edwin Walhout Walhout is a retired Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor, and was once the denomination’s Editor of Adult Education. In 1972 he suggested: …it may well be that science can give us insights into the way in which God created man, but it can hardly discover or disclaim that man is an image of God. In a 2013 Banner article "Tomorrow's Theology," he was far more definitive, proposing that in light of evolution, the CRC needs to re-examine the doctrines of Creation, Original Sin, the Fall and Salvation, as well as whether Adam and Eve were real historical people. Deborah Haarsma Haarsma was a professor at Calvin College from 1999 until 2012. In 2007, along with her husband, she authored a book that discussed various views on origins and, while endorsing none, treated evolution as at least credible. She is now the president of Biologos, a think tank that aggressively promotes evolution as true and that questions Original Sin, the Flood, the Fall into Sin, and whether Adam and Eve were actual historical people. Moving in just one direction? Does this mean that accepting evolution always leads to liberalism? Couldn’t we counter this list by coming up with one made up of Reformed luminaries who have accepted evolution and stayed generally orthodox? We could come up with such a list and maybe we'd place the still unborn-defending, homosexuality-opposing Tim Keller on it. But how many others can we think of? And the problem is that a few decades ago Peter Enns might also have been on such a list. He didn't reject orthodoxy immediately. Any such "counterlist" might simply be a list of evolution-believing Reformed figures who don't reject orthodoxy yet. Only time will tell. No, if we're going to try to make the case that evolution and orthodoxy are a natural fit, then the better counterlist would be that of liberals who, after embracing evolution, moved in a more orthodox direction. That would be a good answer to this list. But does that ever happen? A Dutch version of this article can be found here. This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue....

Culture Clashes, Theology

Did Adam have a belly button?

Why we need to clarify Article 14 of the Belgic Confession In the fourth century a big battle was fought over a one-letter difference. The Church professed that Christ was homoousios – “of the same substance” – as God the Father, while the Arians argued that Christ was homoiousios, or merely “of a similar substance.” The two Greek terms used differed by only a single iota (the Greek “i”) but what was at stake couldn’t have been bigger: the Arians said Christ was like God but was actually a creature. Today we’re contending with an issue that seems quiet small: our battle is over a belly button. On the side are those that profess Adam had no belly button, because he had no mother and because he was never born. As the Belgic Confession Article 14 puts it, ...God created man of the dust from the ground… On the other side or those who say Adam may well have had a belly button and a mom, and ancestors, and may have shared one of those ancestors with the chimpanzees. So this belly button battle quickly shows itself to be about matters much more important. It comes down to whether Adam brought death into the world through the Fall into sin, or whether God used death – millions of years of creatures evolving up from the primordial slime – to bring about Adam. The issue here is every bit as big as Christ’s nature: it’s about the character of God. That’s why Hamilton’s Providence Canadian Reformed Church has proposed amending Article 14 of the Belgic Confession to clarify that Adam has no ancestors. They propose that the Article begin with these two new lines: We believe that God created the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen. 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).  They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans.  There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid. Their addition would add about 40 words to the confession, and remove any doubt as to what should be believed. But is the change needed? Is there really anyone in our church circles that’s confused about Adam’s origins? Yes, and yes. Not only is there confusion in our churches, this same confusion exists in other Reformed churches including the OPC. Canadian Reformed confusion One prominent member of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Jitse Van Der Meer, was asked how he could square man and chimpanzees having a common ancestor with what we confess in the beginning of Belgic Confession Article 14 about man being made from the dust. Prof. Van Der Meer answered: I am not sure why you think there is something to square between Article 14 and the idea of a common ancestor for chimpanzees and humans, but let me make a guess. Some have taken Gen. 2:7 to mean that God acted like a potter. If you take that literally you might see a contradiction with the idea that chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor. But other biblical scholars reject the literal “potter” interpretation because they see this as coming close to disrespect: Did God fashion the liver, the lungs of clay? My conclusion is that the text neither justifies nor excludes the possibility that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor for the obvious reason that it is not a scientific text. Prof. Van Der Meer manages to take both Genesis 2 and Belgic Confession Article 14 and read them in such a way as to allow for the possibility that humans and chimpanzees had common ancestors. According to this perspective, Adam may have been crafted from the dust, but may still have had a belly button, a mom and dad, grandparents, and much, much more. Confusion in the Christian Reformed churches The Christian Reformed churches also hold to the Belgic Confession. But it hasn’t served as a sufficient safeguard against evolutionary inroads. Almost 25 years ago, in the CRC’s 1991 Statement on Origins they wrote in “Declaration F”: The church declares, moreover, that the clear teaching of Scriptures and of our confessions on the uniqueness of human beings as image bearers of God rules out the espousal of all theorizing that posits the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race. That sounds good, right? But this was part of a minority report. The majority had recommended that there be no statements made about human evolution because, “much research remained to be done in that area.” So the majority of the committee, even back in 1991, didn’t want to go as far as to rule out ancestors for Adam. Synod did adopt Declaration F, but attached two notes which rendered the Declaration meaningless. Note 1: Of course, private research, theorizing, and discussions are not addressed by this declaration Note 2: Declaration F is not intended and may not be used to limit further investigation and discussion on the origin of humanity. In other words, even as the 1991 Synod of the CRC took a stand against Adam having ancestors, they specifically allowed for their academics to talk about Adam having ancestors. What the right hand giveth the left taketh away! In 2014, the CRC did away with Declaration F altogether. They still hold to Belgic Confession Article 14, but that is not being understood as an impediment to speculation about Adam having ancestors. Confusion in the OPC Closer to home, confusion about Adam’s origin also exists in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Our sister church was running into trouble way back in 1992 in a case that involved a Calvin College biology professor by the name of Terry Gray. Dr. William VanDoodewaard gives an account of Gray’s case in his book The Quest for the historical Adam: Terry Gray…proposed that both the increasingly accepted hermeneutical alternatives to the literal tradition and what he viewed as the realities of the record of natural history should allow for the possibility that Adam and Eve were created through a process involving primate ancestors. How did Gray address Genesis 2:7, where we are told “…the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground…”? Disagreeing with John Murray’s literal reading…Gray argued that the “dust of the ground” was “a non-technical term” that simply referred to “the physical-chemical constituency of the human body” and that the verse did not address the process by which God formed man. When complaints were first made about Gray’s stance, his session (the OPC term for consistory) “held that the charges were unwarranted.” Fortunately his Presbytery (similar to our Classis) ruled against Gray, and the 1994 OPC General Assembly also ruled against Gray. So the OPC stood strong, right? Not so fast. Gray was suspended from his office as a ruling elder, but as he explained in a blogpost titled “Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church” he was restored in 1998 after he admitted “…I did not know how to hold my views about human evolution together with the uniqueness of Adam as taught in the Confessions and in Scripture.” Gray found that what Scripture taught conflicted with his views about evolution. But that did not lead him to reject evolution. Instead he simply stopped trying to revolve the conflict, continuing to hold to evolution, but no longer suggesting as to how it could be fit in with Scripture. That the OPC thought this an acceptable resolution to the issue underscores the need for clarity. If something is found to conflict with Scripture then it needs to be rejected, not sequestered! That’s what it means to live by God’s Word. Gray eventually left the OPC, joined the CRC, and worked with others there to get Declaration F rescinded. Conclusion In the fourth century you can be sure that many wondered what all the fuss was being made over. Just one letter! But the fight was about the very identity of Christ – Who He is – so it wasn’t possible to compromise. The same has to be true today. Some want to position this as only a minor matter. Maybe Adam had ancestors; maybe he didn’t. Can’t we all just get along? But the issue of Adam’s origins impacts every aspect of what we know about God. If Adam had evolutionary origins then he came about through a process of death, disease, and dead ends. Then, rather than Adam bringing death into the world via the Fall, it was death that brought about Adam. If God created using the tooth-and-claw, survival-of-the-fittest, process of evolution which He then called “good” and “very good” that completely changes our understanding of what good is. It changes how we understand our good God. What’s at stake here is our understanding of God’s. So no, we can’t all just get along. We need to help the confused and stop those who are causing the confusion. One very good way to do so would be to adopt Providence’s proposal to revise Belgic Confession Article 14. This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Reformed Perspective....

Theology

How are we to read the Bible?

From January 16 to 18, in 2014, the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary hosted a conference on the topic of hermeneutics. It's a big word, but they explained what they meant by it: how does one correctly handle the Word of truth in today’s postmodern world?  It comes down to: how are we to read the Bible? Half a dozen professors from the Theological University in Kampen – this institution trains ministers for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) – winged their way across the Atlantic to participate in this Conference.  Two professors from Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana (this institution contributes to the ministerial supply in the URC) braved wintry roads to add their contribution.  And, of course, the faculty of our own Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton did what they could to supply a clear answer to that vital question.  The Conference included two public evenings, and it was good to see that the host church in Ancaster was packed to the rafters on both evenings.  For my part, I took in the two daytime programs too.  By the time the Conference was over at 3:20 Saturday afternoon, I was more than happy to call it quits; one can absorb only so much…. Conference Background Many of the members of the Canadian Reformed Churches have a Dutch background.  Specifically, our (grand)parents were once members of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN).  There is, then, a very strong historic and emotional bond between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  At my own church, the two previous ministers both came directly from these Dutch sister churches, and both had their training in the Theological University of Kampen. In the last dozen years or so, concern has slowly grown within our churches about developments we saw happening in the RCN in general and in the Theological University in particular.  In fact, our recent Synod of Carman wrote a pointed letter to the upcoming Dutch Synod explaining why developments in the Dutch churches worry us, and urging a change (see Acts 2013, Art 165).  The heart of the concern lies in how the professors of Kampen are reading the Bible.  Given that we remain sister churches with the RCN, it was considered right before God to do a Conference with these men in order to understand better what the Kampen men are thinking, and to remind each other of what the Lord Himself says on the subject. How does one read the Bible? It was accepted by all that the Bible comes from God Himself, so that what is written on its pages does not come from human imagination or study, but comes from the Mind of holy God Himself.  So the Bible contains no mistakes; whatever it says is the Truth.  Yet this Word of God is not given to us in some unclear divine language, but infinite God has been pleased to communicate in a fashion finite people can understand – somewhat like parents simplifying their language to get across to their toddler.  As we read the Bible, then, the rules common for reading a newspaper article, a book, or even this Bit to Read apply, ie, you get the sense of a particular word or sentence from the paragraph or page in which it’s written, and when some word or sentence is confusing you interpret the harder stuff in the light of easier words or sentences elsewhere in the article.  That’s the plain logic of reading we all use.  So far the professors of Kampen and Hamilton and MARS were all agreed. Genesis 1 Differences arose, however, when it came to what you do with what a given text says.  In the previous paragraph, I made reference to a ‘toddler’.  We all realize that the use of that word does not make this Bit to Read an article about how to raise toddlers.  Genesis 1 uses the word ‘create’.  Does that mean that that chapter of Scripture is about how the world got here?  We’ve learned to say that Yes, Genesis 1 certainly tells us about our origin.  (And we have good reason for saying that, because that’s the message you come away with after a plain reading of the chapter; besides, that’s the way the 4thcommandment reads Genesis 1, and it’s how Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul, etc, read Genesis 1.)  But the Kampen professors told us not to be so fast in jumping to that conclusion.  Genesis 1, they said, isn’t about how we got here, but it’s instruction to Israel at Mt Sinai about how mighty God is not the author of evil.  Just like you cannot go to the Bible to learn how to raise toddlers (because that’s not what the Bible is about; you need to study pedagogy for that – the example is mine), so you cannot go to the Bible to find out how the world got here – because that’s not what Genesis 1 is about, and so it’s not a fair question we should ask Genesis 1 to answer. 1 Timothy 2 A second example that illustrates how the Dutch professors were thinking comes from their treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12,13.  These verses record Paul’s instruction: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve….”  This passage featured on the Conference program because a report has recently surfaced within the Dutch sister churches arguing that it’s Biblical to ordain sisters of the congregation to the offices of minister, elder and deacon.  1 Timothy 2 would seem to say the opposite.  So: how do you read 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify the conclusion that women may be ordained to the offices of the church? The Dutch brethren answered the question like this: when Paul wrote the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2, the culture Timothy lived in did not tolerate women in positions of leadership.  If Paul in that situation had permitted women to teach in church or to have authority over men, he would have placed an unnecessary obstacle on the path of unbelievers to come to faith.  Our western culture today, however, gives women a very inclusive role in public leadership.  If we today, then, ban them from the offices of the church, we would place an obstacle in the path of modern people on their journey to faith in Jesus Christ.  Had Paul written his letter to the church in Hamilton today, he would have written vs 12 to say that women would be permitted to teach and to have authority over men. That conviction, of course, raises the question of what you do with the “for” with which vs 13 begins.  Doesn’t the word ‘for’ mean that Paul is forming his instruction about the woman’s silence on how God created people in the beginning – Adam first, then Eve?  Well, we were told, with vs 13 Paul is indeed referring back to Genesis 1 & 2, but we need to be very careful in how we work with that because we’re reading our own understandings of Genesis 1 & 2 into Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2, and we may be incorrect in how we understand those chapters from Genesis.  So vs 13 doesn’t help us understand vs 12. Confused… I struggled to get my head around how brothers who claim to love the Lord and His Word could say things as mentioned above. A speech on Saturday morning helped to clarify that question for me. The old way of reading the Bible might be called ‘foundationalism’, describing the notion that you read God’s commands and instructions (eg, any of the Ten Commandments), and transfer that instruction literally into today so that theft or adultery or dishonoring your parents is taboo. This manner of reading the Bible does not go down well with postmodern people, because it implies that there are absolutes that you have to obey. The alternative is to disregard the Bible altogether and adopt ‘relativism’, where there are no rules for right and wrong at all – and that’s obviously wrong. So, we were told, we need to find a third way between ‘foundationalism’ and ‘relativism’. This third way would have us be familiar with the Scriptures, but instead of transferring a command of long ago straight into today’s context, we need to meditate on old time revelation and trust that as we do so the Lord will make clear what His answers are for today’s questions. If the cultural circumstances surrounding a command given long ago turns out to be very similar to cultural circumstances of today, we may parachute the command directly into today and insist it be obeyed. But if the circumstances differ, we may not simply impose God’s dated commands on obedience or on theft or on homosexuality into today. Instead, with an attitude of humility and courage we need to listen to what God is today saying – and then listen not just to the Bible but also to culture, research, science, etc. After prayerfully meditating on the Scripture-in-light-of-lessons-from-culture-and-research, we may well end up concluding that we need to accept that two men love both each other and Jesus Christ. That conclusion may differ from what we’ve traditionally thought the Lord wanted of us, but a right attitude before the Lord will let us be OK with conclusions we’ve not seen in Scripture before. Analysis This speech about the ‘third way’ helped clarify for me why the Kampen professors could say what they did about Genesis 1 and 1 Timothy 2. They were seeking to listen to Scripture as well as to what our culture and science, etc, were saying, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit sought to come to the will of the Lord for today’s questions. To insist that Genesis 1 is God’s description about how we got here (creation by divine fiat) leads to conclusions that fly in the face of today’s science and/or evolutionary thinking – and so we must be asking the wrong questions about Genesis 1; it’s not about how we got here…. To insist that 1 Timothy 2 has something authoritative to say about the place of women is to place us on ground distinctly out of step with our society – and so we must be reading 1 Timothy 2 wrongly. As a result of deep meditation on Scripture plus input from culture etc, these men have concluded that God leads us to condoning women in office in our culture, accepting a very old age for the earth, and leaving room for homosexual relationships in obedient service to the Lord. This, it seems to me, is the enthronement of people’s collective preferences over the revealed Word of God. Our collective will, even when it is renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit, remains “inclined to all evil” (Lord’s Day 23.60; cf Romans 7:15,18). There certainly are questions arising from today’s culture that do not have answers written in obvious command form in Scripture, and so we undoubtedly need to do some humble and prayerful research and thinking on those questions. But the Bible is distinctly clear (not only in Genesis 1) about where we come from, and distinctly clear too (not only in 1 Timothy 2) about the place of women, and distinctly clear also on homosexuality. To plead that we need different answers today than in previous cultures lest the Bible’s teachings hinder unbelievers from embracing the gospel is to ignore that Jeremiah and Micah and Jesus and Paul and James and every other prophet and apostle had to insist on things that were “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). One questioner from the audience hit the nail on the head: the Dutch brethren were adapting their method of reading the Bible to produce conclusions accommodated to our culture. Where does this leave us? There was a time when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and their Theological University in Kampen were a source of much wisdom and encouragement in searching the Scriptures. Given that all the men from Kampen spoke more or less the same language at the Hermeneutics Conference, it is clear to me that those days are past. We need not deny them the right hand of fellowship, but we do need to pray that the Lord have mercy on the Dutch sister churches – for this is how their (future) ministers are being taught to deal with Scripture. I was very grateful to note that the professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (and MARS too, for that matter) all spoke uniformly in their rejection of Kampen’s way of reading the Bible. They insisted unequivocally that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession, I.6). Postmodernism does not pass us by. May the Lord give us grace to keep believing that His Word is authoritative, clear and true....

1 2 3