On angels and guardian angels
Does everyone have a guardian angel? Many people are convinced that they have an angel as their special protector. In the film City of Angels
Reading films: are Christians as discerning as they used to be?
"Moving pictures" have only the briefest of histories, spreading throughout North America early in the twentieth century. The first movie theatres wer
Human Rights need God
Do human rights need God? Bluntly stated, it all depends on your god. Those who reject that there is a God, say human beings are responsible for t
Aging in hope!
I am 68 years of age and retired, so I suppose I am considered old. In our politically correct times, I am called either a “senior citizen" or "chronologically gifted." What is aging? How do we react to it? These questions are no longer academic for me. When I was in my teens, I thought that people in their fifties were old. At this juncture in my life, a fifty-year-old seems relatively youthful. So aging is ambiguous. Bernard Nash describes aging as a paradox: "Does it not strike you that we all want to live longer but none of us want to grow old?" Throughout our lives we think other people grow older until we gradually realize that we ourselves have aged. Some say that aging can be compared with the fall season when the fruits ripen and the leaves fall; others claim that the moment of aging has arrived when the sum total of memories has become greater than our expectations. Aging, says the American gerontologist Howel, "is not a simple slope which everyone slides down at the same speed. It is a flight of irregular stairs down which some journey more quickly than others." To grow old also means to lose acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death. Obituaries testify that life is the process of aging, and aging is the steady progress of dying within us. Every moment we are alive, we are aging. Life and death are intimately linked. The day is coming when all our earthly possessions will be swept away, including our ability to enjoy them. This is not a morbid view of life – it is simply reality. As the 17th century poet Robert Herrick wrote,
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying. And this same flower, that smile today, Tomorrow will be dying.So how do we cope with aging? We live in a society that has shown little understanding of growing old, and valued it even less. The Christian literature on aging seems sparse, with far more attention paid to child-rearing. Too little attention has been given to caring for aged parents. DENIAL CAN'T LAST It’s seems the fear of aging has contributed to a denial of reality – if we don’t talk about it, maybe it won’t happen to us, right? This sort of denial is why some find visiting a nursing home a burden. They can't imagine themselves ever being there. They don’t want the reminder of their own mortality. Our society views frankness about death as deviant, a subject not to be discussed in polite company. For many death is the last taboo in Western culture; for others it has become an exploited sentimentality: people don't attend funerals anymore, but instead “celebrations of a life lived.” And when they do talk about death, it is to make light of it, with styrofoam tombstones on the front yard on All Hallows’ Eve. But their atheistic naturalism leaves them unable to face the brute finality of death. And because they are unwilling to return to a biblical perspective, a new generation puts their faith in reports of out-of-body experiences and in New Age mysticism. Still, try as it might, the world cannot keep death out of sight and mind. The moment we are born, we begin to die. PERPETUAL TEENAGERS The world’s death denial is evident, too, in how it is now a common goal among the aged to stay young. Or, rather, not just stay young, but stay immature. Whereas in the past becoming an adult was the ideal, today the older generation wants to look as young as possible, with some trying to camouflage their age by dressing like teenagers. In his own inimitable and not very flattering way, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge reported on a month he spent at a resort in Florida. He said that everything was done to make senior citizens feel that they were not really aged, but still full of zest and expectations; if not teenagers, then keenagers. These seniors, he said, had withered bodies arrayed in dazzling summer wear, hollow eyes glaring out of garish caps, skulls plastered with cosmetics, lean shanks tanned a rich brown, bony buttocks encased in scarlet trousers. Muggeridge's description may be exaggerated, but it does say something about the affect contemporary youth culture has on our society. It has a negative and morbid view of aging. FOREVER ON EARTH? The advertisement industry contributes to this mood. Wherever we look, there are ads for anti-aging creams, yoga routines, nutritional programs, and medical interventions. Growing old is seen not so much as part of the human condition but rather as a solvable medical and scientific problem. Hence, doctors and scientists search for a solution to the "problem of old age." What are the chances that scientific advance will find a way to extend life indefinitely? A number of investors have paid large sums to have their bodies frozen at death by means of cryogenics, which is used to freeze beef and vegetables, as well as people. But as Dr. Russell points out in his secular work Good News About Aging, those who cherish dreams of being defrosted and living forever some time hence are probably cherishing an implausible dream because freezing destroys human body cells. He adds:
"…even if we can overcome this and other problems, no scientific evidence suggests that we can expect to eliminate death now or in the future because all things break down over time."And what if we could live forever? In our fallen world, would we really want to? In his 1922 play The Makropulos Secret, Karel Capek probes this issue with the 337-year-old character Emilia, who notes:
"… no one can love for three hundred years – it cannot last. And then everything tires one. It tires one to be good, it tires one to be bad. The whole earth tires one. And then you find out there is nothing at all: no sin, no pain, no earth, nothing."What a hideous future! To be given an everlasting longevity without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, without hope to be with the Lord in the new heaven and earth, is a dismal prospect. It is to live under a curse. If we could live on in this world with all its pain, conflicts, without solving the immense human problems, a medically-expanded life would simply set the stage for more of same human conflicts and social injustices. IMPATIENCE INSTEAD OF HONOR Death denial is also evident in our youth’s treatment of the elderly. Aging frustrates modern youth – it interferes with their desire "to get things done." Have you ever noticed the impatience shown in a lineup at the bank when a senior is trying to carry out a transaction? Their slower pace often exasperates the clerk and the younger customers waiting for their turn. These young people can’t imagine ever being in the same situation. Sure, other people age…but not them. The conflict between the generations is a subject of much discussion. Many seem to view aging as a process to endure and suffer through, rather than as a temporally contingent gift from God to be approached with gratitude. The Canadian philosopher George Grant observed that old age is more and more seen as an unalleviated disaster, not only for those outside of it but by those people who are old themselves. And he noted that we do not see age as that time when the eternal can be realized, and we therefore pity the aged as coming to the end of historic existence. Sociologists even refer to ageism, which can be defined as a general distaste for the elderly in our culture – equivalent to racial prejudice, but in this case unfair generalizations are made about any who are old: “all elderly people are forgetful," "all elderly people are ill-tempered," "all elderly people suffer from depression,” or “mental impairment is endemic to aging.” Contrary to the myth about aging, seniors do not necessarily decline in intelligence or lose their decision-making abilities. History gives us countless examples of creative, active, and productive seniors. At 71, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was appointed the chief architect of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. After he was 63 years old, Joost Van den Vondel (1587-1679), Holland's greatest poet, wrote Jephta, Lucifer and Adam in ballingschap (Adam in exile). George Bernhard Shaw (1856-1679), Irish dramatist and author, wrote Farfetched Fables at 93. Polish-born Arthur Rubinstein (1888-1982) gave a stunning performance at Carnegie Hall at the age of 90. Like these famous people, there are millions of elderly people who are still productive and active in their own way and want to remain so. Ageism seems to comes about because people know little about old age, and because what they know is based on myth and fear. People even talk about generational wars. In recent years, the conflict between the generations has become most noticeable due to the decreasing ability of government to pay for health and pension benefits. The pinch is already provoking generational conflict in the ambitious welfare states of Northern Europe, where birthrates and immigration rates are lower than in the United States and where the elderly wield considerable political clout. Young Europeans are complaining about the high cost of healthcare for the elderly, and are resentful of fees that are eroding the tradition of free university education. One German youth leader gained notoriety by suggesting that old folks should use crutches rather than seek expensive hip replacements. Unfortunately, this generational conflict is also seen in churches today. Seniors don't like to call their dominee “pastor Jack” and they certainly don’t like his casual appearance when he comes visiting. But when a vacant church thinks of calling a pastor there is a strong emphasis on youth. It seems that some search committees look for a twenty-five-year-old man with thirty years of experience. A CHRISTIAN ALTERNATIVE The differences between the generations don't need to lead to conflicts. Christians can offer alternative understandings of aging. The Bible views the conflict between generations as abnormal. Yes, youth is a wonderful thing, but it is not the only thing. It is a blessing in many ways, but it can, on some occasions even be a curse. When Isaiah pronounced judgment on Jerusalem and Judah, he said, "I will make boys their officials; mere children will govern them" (Isa.3:4). Young and old can come to mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. In the Kingdom of God, "Children's children are a crown of the aged, and parents are the pride of their children" (Prov. 17:6). Old men dream dreams and young men see visions (Joel 2:28; cf. Acts 2:17). And God promises that He will be with His people of every age bracket. "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you" (Isa. 46:4). So how do we face the twilight years of life? With feelings of dread… or of hope? Let’s delve further into God’s Word and see. AGING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT In the Old Testament we find that God regards great age as the supreme reward of virtue. The aged were shown respect and honor. Old age is a blessing and not a curse. Scripture says, "Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God" (Lev.19-32). The psalmist testifies to growing old in hope. He says,
"The righteous ... will still bear fruit in old age; They will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him" (Ps. 92:14-15).Growing old became a symbol of blessing, wisdom, and righteousness – an honorable process by which God rewarded those who were obedient, for example, in honoring their own parents: "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Ex. 20:12). In Proverbs readers are essentially promised a long life if their hearts will but, “keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they give you" (3:1-2). The very display of gray hair itself, a sure sign of growing old throughout the centuries, becomes in Scripture "a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Prov. 16:31). By pushing the elderly aside to fringes of society, we diminish them and make our society the poorer through the loss of their experience and maturity. When Moses was 80 years old, God called him to lead His people to the Promised Land. At that greatly advance age, Moses became the historian, leader, and statesman of Israel. At about 85 years of age, Joshua was divinely commissioned to succeed Moses. At his death at 110 years of age, he was deeply mourned and his eminent service widely acknowledged (Josh. 24:29-31). A NEW TESTAMENT BLESSING TOO In the New Testament the attitude towards aging is no different from that in the Old Testament. Those who reached an advanced age were honored and esteemed in the community. Aged saints have a significant role in the opening chapter of Luke's Gospel. The first characters to appear on the stage are the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both "advanced in years" (Luke 1:7). They are the instruments of God's purposes and the first interpreters of God's saving acts. Simeon and Anna are the prophetic chorus welcoming the child Jesus on the occasion of his purification in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). The remarkable thing is that the aged Simeon dies in the beginning of the Gospel account. His eyes are fixed in hope on the one newly born, in whose life, death, and resurrection the world will know peace. He has long been hoping for "the consolation of Israel," and has been promised by the Holy Spirit that he will not die before he has seen the Lord's Messiah. Anna – an eighty-four-year-old prophetess who frequents the Temple to worship and pray night and day – recognizes Jesus, gives thanks to God, and declares the news about him "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). As people who have clung to God's promises over many years, they embody the virtues of long-suffering patience and trust in God's ultimate faithfulness. They also exemplify faith and hope, even when circumstances seem hopeless. Aging was not seen by the early Christians as a "problem" to which some sort of religious solution was required. In the entire New Testament, particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, the respect due to older members of the community is emphasized. The exhortations imply and speak explicitly of dutifully caring for widows, honoring the elderly, imitating their faith, and faithfulness. For example, "Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as you would a father." Here we find also specific directives that the community should provide assistance to widows over age of sixty, and that women recognized by the Church as widows should devote their energies to prayer, hospitality, and to service to the afflicted (1 Tim.5: 3-16). In our youth obsessed culture, the elderly are strongly tempted to act youthful. They are expected to get a workout to remain in shape, get beauty treatments to rejuvenate themselves, and to dress in youth fashions. Should seniors long to be young again? I don't think so. For Christians old age is not a dead-end street. As we age, we can still grow spiritually. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians "Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16). He said to the Ephesians that we can progressively succeed in putting off the old self and putting on the new self and "be made new in the attitude of our minds." This renewal through the Holy Spirit impacts our mental attitude, state of mind, and disposition with respect to God and His world throughout our life. In other words, we continue to develop our walk with God (Eph. 4:22-24). NEVER TO OLD TO SERVE THE LORD Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, who suffered unspeakable horror in Nazi concentration camps, says that there is no reason to pity old people. And he adds this remarkable statement, "Instead, young people should envy them." Why? Because seniors have something young people don't possess. Frankl says that seniors have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past. In Book X of his Confessions, Augustine (354-430) calls memory a "vast court" or "great receptacle." The elderly have a rich storehouse of memories, and inner landscape to explore: times lost in idleness, opportunities well used, a fulfilling career, children grown up, and suffering gone through with dignity and courage. What an opportunity for our youth to tap into the memories of their grandparents! Covenantal obligations never cease. The Christian faith is passed on from one generation to the next. It depends on that transmission. That’s why there must always be a most intimate relationship between the present and the coming generation if there is to be a future generation of Christians. The Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. They are the embodiment of the Church's story. Of course, we do not expect that all the elderly will be able to express the "wisdom of their years." But there can be no substitute for some old people in the Church passing on their wisdom to the younger generation. The youth simply cannot do without the older generation. In our culture, for a few years young adults may pretend (egged on by social and cultural forces) that they can live forever as autonomous, self-reliant, self-fulfilling beings. The pretense, however, collapses soon enough. The presence of the visible vulnerable elderly is a reminder that we are not our own creators. All of us will age; dark and blond hair will turn grey. Consequently, young Christians need the elderly so they will not take their lives for granted. I will say it again: the Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. That's why throughout history the Church has frowned on separating the young from the old through conducting youth services. I have even read about a Church where no older people were expected to attend. But according to Scripture old and young belong together. They are all part of the great family of God. Our covenant youth need to hear from their grandparents and seniors in the Church what it means to be a Christian. Grandparents know the family traditions and values. They can tell the story of their wartime experiences, their immigration with its hardship and adventures, and the reasons for leaving the country of their birth. Seniors can give to the youth the lessons and spiritual resources that have been harvested over a lifetime. Our times are so confusing and threatening for our young people. Why not explain to them that the Christian faith is for all of life: hence the founding of Christian schools, colleges, universities, a Christian labor association, Christian magazines and bi-weeklies, and a Christian political party? Why not tell them that doing good works is doing your work well? Why not testify to them how the Lord's promise "Surely I am with you always" (Matt.28:20) is a reality and not a myth? The lessons learned from godly grandparents and other Christian seniors are often long remembered. HOPE IN CHRIST As we age, we become more aware of the swift passing of years. We can either let the fear of death put a mental stranglehold on us or we can look to the future with hope. Let’s remember, the best is yet to come! Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord is the ground of our hope and the promise of our deliverance. The hope of the resurrection lies at the heart of the way in which Christians embody the practices of growing old. We serve a faithful God who will never forget us! We are strangers and pilgrims on earth, the older we become the nearer we are to our eternal home. This truth encourages even the oldest individual to cherish each moment of life while preparing to relinquish it. Each day is a gift from God. We look to Him for our daily bread while making sure that we seek first the kingdom of God rather than squandering our time and energy on secondary concerns. With the prospect of a glorious future for all who are in Christ, we can identify with Martin Luther's suggestions that "in the purpose of God, this world is only a preparation and a scaffolding for the world to come." I also think of John Calvin's teaching in his Geneva Catechism that we are "to learn to pass through this world as though it is a foreign country, treating all things lightly and declining to set our hearts on them." We all face death some time or another. When we are old, it is more of a reality than in the days of our youth. I pray that our attitude toward death may resemble that of Lutheran pastor, scholar, and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who with shining face in joyful expectation, said to the two Nazi guards who had to come to take him to be executed, "For you it is the end, for me the beginning."
Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at ReformedReflections.ca. This is an edited version of a two-part article that first appeared in the 2004 November and December issues.
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 of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections.
What is humor?
What is humor? It seems a simple question, with a very obvious answer: humor is whatever makes us laugh or smile. But then what of all the cruel pranks and the sacrilegious gags that make so many laugh? Even the crudest of comedians can get big laughs. The fact is, we laugh at a lot of things that just aren’t funny. So we aren’t interested in simply what makes us laugh. Instead we’re going to explore genuine humor, the sort of humor that gets laughs but can be shared without shame – we’re going to explore Christian humor. DEFINITION OF HUMOR Humor is a term used in English since the early eighteenth century to denote a type of writing or speech whose purpose it is to evoke some kind of laughter. So laughter is a key element. But we want to go deeper – we want to go beyond the knock knock joke. Instead of being something merely light or superficial, the best humor depends upon profundity. "A humorous rejoinder, " said Kierkegaard, "must always contain something profound." For example here’s a joke about a person getting their just deserts (as described in Galatians 6:7-8):
While doing his daily rounds a prison chaplain stopped in on a prisoner who had been assigned the task of making pillowcases for the entire 5,000 inmate prison.
“Good morning,” said the chaplain, “Sewing, eh?’
“No, Chaplain, “ replied the prisoner with a grim smile. “Reaping.”Elton Trueblood observed that humor takes intelligence: "It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable to high seriousness and a sense of the tragic." THE NEED FOR HUMOR Sometimes humor is dismissed as being trivial but genuine humor is an important and effective tool in many settings. Properly used, it can allow us to see our lives in more realistic proportions, restrain an explosion of anger, and deliver us from pessimism and despair, and do so much more. For example, it can be a wonderful educational tool and a means to restoring order in a classroom with a smile. It can even be a way to ensure better parent/teacher relations as a wise Grade 1 teacher was said to have done by sending the following note home on the first day of school:
"If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says happens at home.”Humor is a necessity within the church as well. When we lose our sense of proportion and humor, controversies in the church become battlefields. We look for "heretics" in each corner and even tend to look under our bed before we dare to go to sleep. We can be so busy with controversies we can no longer hear the footsteps of our approaching Lord, whose coming is at hand. And how sad it is to see people spend time and energy to paint their position in bright colors and put others in worse light than warranted. We may not build bomb-free shelters where criticism cannot enter. Humor should not be overlooked in evangelism either. It is easy to visit people who are with you, but it is hard when they are filled with bitterness against the Lord and His church. With tact and humor we can make contact with people who are filled with criticism against church members, and especially ministers. Real humor blossoms only where God's Word has taken root. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones," says Solomon (Prov. 17:23). So a Christian remembers that he is always in the presence of God, and his speech is the gift of the Creator. As Augustine put it:
"Speech is not simply our possession; it is God's gift to us. To recognize and acknowledge this gift in truthful words is to offer grateful praise to the One from whom it comes."LAUGH AT YOURSELF All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself shows we understand some of our imperfections. A Christian who understands he is living his life under the judging eye of God does not boast about his moral achievements. He understands that is pride and folly. One of the qualifications of a missionary is a sense of humor - while learning a new language and new customs it is easy to make embarrassing blunders. When we were serving in the Philippines, I made my share, and a good laugh at myself helped me survive. But there is another side to laughing at oneself. If we keep laughing when we have done something wrong, if we cannot recognize the real evil of sin, laughter turns into folly. If we continue to laugh after having recognized the depth of evil we have committed, our laughter becomes the instrument of irresponsibility. DISTORTED HUMOR It is easy indeed for humor to be distorted. A.D. Dennison, a Christian cardiologist, says in his 1970s bestseller Shock it to me Doctor that he recalls one man who sped up to a drugstore and asked the druggist if he had anything for hiccups. The druggist, without a word, hit the man between the eyes and knocked him to the floor. The man slowly got up and graciously asked again, "Sir, do you have anything for hiccups?" The druggist replied, "You don't have them any more do you?" The man responded, "No, I never did, but my wife out in the car does." This may be a clever joke, but it’s is devoid of compassion and respect for others. Is this Christian humor? A type of humor often used during war is called "gallows humor." Soldiers are known on occasion to engage in hysterical laughter when nerves are tense before the battle. They speak flippantly of the possible dire fate which might befall this or that man of their company. "Sergeant," a soldier is reported to have said before a battle, "don't let this little fellow go into battle before me. He isn't big enough to stop the bullet meant for me." The "joke" was received with uproarious laughter by the assembled comrades. But when the "little fellow" died in battle the next day, everyone felt ashamed of the joke. At any rate, it was quite inadequate to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem of death. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out: "If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy." HUMOR IN THE BIBLE If we are going to investigate true humor, then we must not overlook the Bible. The Bible deals with very serious subjects – heaven, hell, sin and salvation - but that should not cause us to overlook its literary beauty, and the humor in the Bible. There are critics who regard the Bible as deficient in the sense of humor and they can point to the fact there is little laughter in the Bible. But the Bible is filled with humor. Humor in the Bible appears especially when idolatry is mocked. One powerful example occurs when Isaiah pokes fun at a man who carves an idol from wood. In chapter 44:15-17 he describes in some detail the absurd process:
"It is a man's fuel for burning, some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares a meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.'"GOD LAUGHS The only instance in which laughter is attributed to God occurs in Psalm 2:4, which says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” This is not a happy image – God is pictured laughing at man and having him in derision because of the vanity of his imagination and pretensions. God mocks kings who plan to divide the world amongst each other, while God says to the Messiah, " I will make the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (vs. 8). But the humor in the Bible is not limited to that of derisive laughter. Throughout Scripture God reveals a real sense of humor. When the human race wanted to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves, "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building (Gen. 11:5). God acts as if the tower of Babel is so small that He can't see it from heaven – He had to come down to see it. And when Israel is threatened by the Philistines, God uses a most unlikely means to save His people so that the Messiah could come in the fullness of time. What does He do? God writes history with a small stone from a brook. Young David with a small stone smites Goliath and Israel was rescued. JESUS AND LAUGHTER The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the eternal Son of God took to himself, “a truly human nature so that he might become David's true descendant, in all things like us his brothers except for sin” (Q&A 35). So when we speak about Jesus and humor, we are not disrespectful, We accept His incarnation as real. He was seen as the carpenter's son. Christ's characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. But it is very important to understand that the purpose of Christ's humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. When Jesus teaches His disciples about being light bearers in this dark world, he uses sly humor about where to put light. The message is about the necessity of witness, but the failure to be a witness is rendered laughable when Jesus asks, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushes, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21). Since the lamp mentioned has an open flame, and since the bed is a mattress, it is easy to see that in this situation the light would be suffocated or the mattress would be burned. The appeal here is to the patently absurd. The sensitive laugh; they get the point. When Christ said not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), He was again employing the patently absurd to make His point. Christ tells us that we are not to waste precious words or time or effort on those who chronically resist the Gospel. We must remember, of course, that the joke about casting what is precious before the pigs was even more preposterous for a Jewish audience than it is for us. The rejection of pork was deep-seated in their consciousness. Christ's major weapon against the Pharisaic attack was laughter, and He used it fully. The point at which they were most vulnerable was their manifest self-righteousness. There is no one more ridiculous than the sinner who claims to be perfect. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting demons in the name of Beelzebub, "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?" (Matt. 12:27). Jesus pokes fun at the critics, since everyone who listens will realize that the subtle question has no possible answer. Christ's question really means, "By what demonic agency do you perform your miracles?" It is easy to see that the humorous question is a far more effective rejoinder than a serious argument about demons. The severest critics of Christ could not stand ridicule, for seriousness was their central strength. CONCLUSION What then is the secret of true humor? The answer is found in the Gospel. It is to know that you are a forgiven a sinner, to have no illusions about the self, and no inclination to appear morally better than you are, either in the sight of man or of God. Our release from bondage of sin gives joy. This joy expresses itself in an exuberance of which laughter is not the only one, but certainly one, expression.
Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections.
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 [caption id="attachment_5954" align="alignright" width="197"] 560 pages / 2004[/caption] 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, live 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 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 suggest 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 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 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.
Seniors: Florida does not exist
Some seniors have a phobia about aging. They see their retirement years as a curse of boredom and uselessness. Others see them as an opportunity for the pursuit of leisure. During the winter some seek a warmer climate, away from their family, friends, and their local church. But the Church is the kind of community that insists that those who have grown in years are not relieved of moral and spiritual responsibilities. They cannot move to Florida and leave the Church to survive on its own. For Christians, there is no "Florida" even if they happen to live there. Tell it to the next generation From the Biblical perspective, seniors are a significant resource God can use for His Kingdom in these critical times. The elderly have a rich storehouse of memories, and inner landscape to explore: times lost in idleness, opportunities well used, a fulfilling career, children grown up, and suffering gone through with dignity and courage. What an opportunity for our youth to tap into the memories of their grandparents! Covenantal obligations never cease. The Christian faith is passed on from one generation to the next. It depends on that transmission. That’s why there must always be a most intimate relationship between the present and the coming generation if there is to be a future generation of Christians. The Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. They are the embodiment of the Church's story. Of course, we do not expect that all the elderly will be able to express the "wisdom of their years." But there can be no substitute for some old people in the Church passing on their wisdom to the younger generation. The youth simply cannot do without the older generation. In our culture, for a few years young adults may pretend (egged on by social and cultural forces) that they can live forever as autonomous, self-reliant, self-fulfilling beings. The pretense, however, collapses soon enough. The presence of the visible vulnerable elderly is a reminder that we are not our own creators. All of us will age; dark and blond hair will turn grey. Consequently, young Christians need the elderly so they will not take their lives for granted. I will say it again: the Church cannot be the Church without the elderly. That's why throughout history the Church has frowned on separating the young from the old through conducting youth services. I have even read about a Church where no older people were expected to attend. But according to Scripture old and young belong together. They are all part of the great family of God. Our covenant youth need to hear from their grandparents and seniors in the church what it means to be a Christian. Grandparents know the family traditions and values. They can tell the story of their wartime experiences, their immigration with its hardship and adventures, and the reasons for leaving the country of their birth. Seniors can give to the youth the lessons and spiritual resources that have been harvested over a lifetime. Our times are so confusing and threatening for our young people. Why not explain to them that the Christian faith is for all of life: hence the founding of Christian schools, colleges, universities, a Christian labor association, Christian magazines and bi-weeklies, and a Christian political party? Why not tell them that doing good works is doing your work well? Why not testify to them how the Lord's promise "Surely I am with you always" (Matt.28:20) is a reality and not a myth? The lessons learned from godly grandparents and other Christian seniors are often long remembered. Use what strength you have In old age, as throughout our lives, we must continue to pursue the way of service, conforming our own lives to the self-giving pattern of Jesus. The Christian practice of growing old is shaped by the example of Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient, even to the point of death, for our sake (cf. Phi.2:1-13). Our Lord never promised His followers an easy path to tread. The way of discipleship leads to the cross (e.g., Mark 8:34-38; Luke 14: 25-27). Seniors can still do so much in reaching a spiritually dark world for the Lord. Some retirees are engaged in volunteer work for a mission agency. They spend time overseas assisting in some building projects. Others volunteer for city mission work in one of the big cities in North America. The volunteers I have met over the years have all testified how blessed they felt in Kingdom service in their retirement years. They still considered themselves useful soldiers in the Lord's army. Spiritual warriors too Of course, not every senior is able to volunteer for mission or church work. Some have multiple health problems. Their physical disabilities limit them in their activities. Yet seniors can still be brought specific prayer requests. The persecuted church requires constant prayer support. Our covenant youth need intercessory prayer. Seniors can engage in spiritual warfare as they pray for the advance of the Gospel around the world. Millions of unreached people are still held captive by the strongholds of Satan. Multitudes are blinded by the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4). So why not encourage seniors to think of the great ministry of prayer available to them? The younger generation can tell them, "You are able to spend more time in prayer than us! You know more about the ups and downs in life than we do. You can pray especially for missionaries on the field.” Seniors, we need your prayer ministry! As an old hymn says:
Prayer is the Christian's vital breath, The Christian's native air, His watchword at the gates of death; He enters heaven with prayer.
Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at ReformedReflections.ca. This is excerpted from a two-part article that first appeared in the 2004 November and December issues.
The Bible on angels
Who are those mysterious angelic heavenly beings who live in the presence of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe? Can we know more about them? Yes, certainly! When we carefully collect the Scriptural data, we receive a marvelous insight into the world of angels – we can learn a good deal about these wonderful beings. Yet angelology has been frequently dismissed as futile speculation with no practical relevance for the Christian life and mission. And those who write about it at any length are said to divert believers from the weightier matters of the Christian faith. Let's be clear: this is no indulgence into New Age escapist fascination with spiritual beings. Rather, it is to see how God is at work in His world. The task of angels is to direct us beyond them to God. That said, it is true that undue concentration upon the angelic world does distracts us from Him. In this context John Calvin's rule of modesty for his treatment of angels is worth noting:
Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God's Word. Furthermore, we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification.Created by God We know that the angelic world is real, not because we have verified it in experience but because God has said it. The heavenly realms in Scripture are not planets, dead stars, moon rocks or planetary rings, they are personal beings populating the universe. They are unseen spirits having different ranks, attributes and tasks. The physical as well as the spiritual world owes its origin to the Triune God. Through His Son God made the universe (Heb. 1:2). "Through him all things were made," writes the apostle John (1:3). The apostle Paul declares the same truth, "all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...were created by him (Jesus Christ) and for him" (Col. 1:16). The most extended passage on angels, Hebrews 1:5-2:9, makes a special point of establishing that our Lord is superior to them. Because they were created through Him and for Him, they belong to Him. He is their head and the center of their world. Little is said about the origin of angels in the Bible. All that it says about the creation of angels is that "God commanded and they were created" (Ps. 148:2,5). The angelic world then is an enormous gathering of solitary, heavenly beings. They are neither male nor female. They neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:25). They don't have offspring. Their number is complete (Matt.22:30). They are not eternal as they have a beginning. And they are not omnipresent as God alone is everywhere present. Theologians have speculated when the angels were created, but not one has arrived at a definitive answer. We just don't know. Louis Berkhof argues that no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and earth. And he states that the only safe statement seems to be that the angels were created before the seventh day. But I believe it is not too bold to argue that heaven with its inhabitants were complete at the very beginning of creation. Even before the creation of the material universe there was a vast world of angels and they still exist today. They sang praises unto God when they saw the wonder of God's handiwork. As God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?...On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"(Job 38:4-7) Angels then existed prior to man. But Man is the crown of creation (cf. Ps. 8). The Number of Angels Do we really need to know the exact number of angels? No, the very existence of angels testifies already to the greatness of our God. But we can consider some of the popular notions. The Pharisees, for example, seem to have an exaggerated view of their numbers. It was said among them, "that a man, if he threw a stone over his shoulder or cast away a broken piece of pottery, asked pardon of any spirit that he might possibly have hit it so doing." Some medieval theologians claimed to know the exact number: one said 266,613,336, after the 133,306,668 followed Lucifer and fell; another said that there was an angel behind every blade of grass. But the Bible does not give us definite figures. We are told that there is an enormous company of heavenly beings. Daniel 7:10 says 10,000 times 10,000 stood before the throne of God, which would amount to 100,000,000, but the point here is to speak of the vast array, rather than the particular amount. Hebrews 12:22 speaks of the city of the living God and an innumerable company of angels. We also know a great company of heavenly hosts appeared to the shepherds, praising God for the birth of the Savior (Luke 2:13). After His arrest in Gethsemane Jesus told Peter that His heavenly Father could put twelve legions of angels at His disposal. (Matt. 26:53). Again, this does not mean that Jesus said that there were literally 120,000 angels. Jesus used the number to tell Peter that He had myriads of angels who were ready to come to His aid. Fallen Angels So innumerable hosts of perfect angels follow their Creator. But not all angels remained faithful to Him. Satan, the mightiest of the angels, became proud. He led a revolt in heaven and was cast out and innumerable fallen angels entered the service of the wicked Deceiver (Matt.25:41; 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 9:11; 12:7-10). Their punishment? The apostle Peter said that God did not spare His angels when they sinned "but sent them to hell" (2 Pet.2:4). Jude notes that the rebel angels "did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day" (vs. 6). When we consider fallen angels, we can also take comfort in the presence of perfect angels. Because they were in the presence of Satan before his fall, they know the powers of the demonic better than any human being. They understand their wicked ways. Shakespeare, the astute observer of human nature, was well aware of Satan's pride and tempting powers. "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition; By that sin fell angels; how can man then, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it?...How wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors!... When he falls, he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again" (Henry VIII). The evil spirits and their leader are constantly opposing the advance of the Kingdom of God. One of the greatest missionaries of all times, Ludwig Nommensen (1834-1918), settled among the Toba Bataks, in Northern Sumatra. Central to his belief was that by faith in the living Lord, Christians share in Christ's victory over sin, death, and Satan. Nommensen was very sensitive to the reality of the spirit world. He taught fellow missionaries, "After one has come to understand the people and to be understood by them, one has to begin with the preaching of the Gospel in having a twofold work, namely to pull down the bulwark of Satan and to build up the house of truth." The Nature of Angels Although there are abundant references to angels in the Bible, they are not meant to inform us about their dazzling nature. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, His actions, and how He works out the plan of salvation. What then can we say about them? They are not omnipresent. They are not restricted by time or space. Angels are without bodies and hence invisible. And although they are pure spirits, they can take on human form. We see this happening when two angels came to Lot in the form of men to tell them to get out of Sodom (Gen.19). Also, on the day of the resurrection the women who went to the tomb saw two men "in clothes that gleamed like lightening" (Luke 24:4). Matthew records that an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening, and his clothes were white as snow (Matt.28:2). Angels are endowed with great intelligence (2 Sam. 14:20). Since they are in the presence of God they have a far clearer view of and deeper insight into the meaning of all that happens in this world than we do. Our knowledge is always limited, even in our age of computers, Internet and other amazing technological advances. But angels do not act on their own; they function and intervene in the world only as God commands. Their amazing knowledge and power, like that of all other creatures, are dependent on and derived from Him. They are capable of great feats of strength, whether it is in slaying more than 180,000 in one evening, or setting an apostle free from prison (2 Kings 19:35; Acts 12). When the Bible speaks about heaven and earth, it often links angels and human beings. Our Lord taught us to pray, "Our Father in heaven... your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"(Matt.6: 9f). The presence of angels encourages Christians to obey God. As the angels carry out God's will in heaven so should we do the same on earth. The third request in the Lord's Prayer means, says the Heidelberg Catechism, "Help everyone carry out (his or her work)... as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven"(Q&A 124). The angels do more than sing; they also speak. Paul said to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). But we must not spend time in speculating about the nature of the language which angels use in communicating with one another – this is an exercise in futility. The question is, are we ready to listen when an angel addresses us? God sent an angel to prepare for Israel the way to the promised land. He told His people, "Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him"(Ex. 23:21). When an angel spoke to Zechariah the priest, and foretold the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah did not trust his message. He said, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years"(Luke 1:18). There is always the tragic possibility that the voice of an angel will come to us but we refuse to listen. Conclusion With joy the angels obey the will of God (Ps. 103:21). Our loving God sends His angels to support His people on their often arduous journey to the heavenly city. From the throne room in heaven He commands His angels. They do His bidding. After his miraculous rescue from prison, Peter said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches" (Acts 12:11). The angels before whom Zechariah, the virgin Mary, and the shepherd fell to the ground in fear and awe are actually our unseen helpers. As we mature in our faith, we will increasingly see the beauty and wonder of our Lord's mighty work on our behalf, and gain in our understanding of the role of His ministering angels in our lives.
Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years and many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections.
On the shoulders of giants: how church history helps
Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our age is characterized by a "refusal to remember." I think it is more than that. I believe it is an indifference rather than an outright refusal to remember the past. And because we don't know our past, we have become a rootless society. In his provocative book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the television rendered the previous generation unfit to remember. Television's focus on the immediate deprived us of an historical experience. So many know so much about the happenings of the last 24 hours, but very little of bygone centuries or even the last 60 years. No wonder that youth show little affinity with the past. Today's generation lives even more in "a perpetual present," without depth, definition, or secure identity. Many think the study of history is a dull and irrelevant exercise. Gathered wisdom The lack of historical awareness has also affected the Church. Too many evangelical and Reformed Christians jump from the early church of the Apostles right to the present. They seem to forget that men and women lived the Christian life before them. But there is this great "cloud of witnesses," who have wrestled with doctrinal and moral issues that contemporary Christians can learn from. Because they are unaware of the profound doctrinal debates of the church fathers, of the Reformers, and even of the recent history of their own denominations and all the momentous implications, they deprive themselves of the gathered wisdom of the ages. For example, as a student of church history, I am deeply impressed by the outstanding theological works produced by the 17th century Puritan spiritual giants. They greatly surpass the generally weak and shallow theology and spirituality of the present. The creeds and confessions are also a vital link with the past. They show how throughout the centuries the Holy Spirit has been at work in forming, maintaining and renewing the Church. The Three Forms of Unity express the heart of the apostolic and also of the Reformed faith, the faith which has been accepted as true for generations. The confessions remind us of the communal nature of the Church. They also tell us that we are not the first generation that has read the Bible. The confessions show us a particular way of understanding Scripture which the Christian Church has recognized as responsible and trustworthy. A church which no longer pays attention to her creeds and confessions denies her heritage. Only when we remain in fellowship with the faithful who have gone before us are we able to travel into the future. We must know where we come from so that we may know where we are going. Dr. J. I. Packer rightly observed, "Knowing the family history is one way of avoiding past errors and preparing to face the future." Inspiration The study of church history is also important for the development of our spiritual life. Without a reflection on the past, Christians are prone to become spiritually anemic. The story of the Christian martyrs, who sacrificed their all for the cause of Christ, is inspirational. A moving testimony from the early church is the martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 70-155), faithful pastor and champion of apostolic tradition. After his capture by his persecutors, infuriated Jews and Gentiles gathered wood for the stake. Polycarp stood by it, asking not to be fastened to it, and prayed:
O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of Thee.. . I thank Thee that Thou hast thought me worthy, this day and this hour, to share the cup of Thy Christ among the number of Thy witnesses.And I think of the martyrdom in China of John and Betty Stam, missionaries with the China Inland Mission. Betty, a gifted poet, had been raised in China by Presbyterian parents, and felt God's call to return there. John, of Dutch immigrant ancestry from New Jersey, was also drawn to China where, as he said," a million a month pass into Christless graves." Their missionary work was short-lived. In 1934 they were captured by the communists and executed. Their martyrdom made a great impact and led many to volunteer for missions. The most publicized martyrdom in recent history is no doubt the January 1956 massacre of five young missionaries by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. The story of their lives has been well told by Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of one of the martyrs. But their deaths have not been in vain. There is now a church among the Auca Indians. The stories of the martyrs give a feeling of fellowship with those who have carried the torch before and an appreciation of the priceless heritage which is ours in Christ. Seeing further We can learn from the wisdom and the examples of godly men and women of the past. We can also learn from their mistakes and follies. Here is how John of Salisbury, a 12th-century British author, described the importance of studying history:
We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more things than them, and things that are farther away - not because we can see better than they, or because we are taller than they are, but because they raise us up, and add their stature to ours.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 1999 issue of Reformed Perspective under the title "Inspired by Past." Many of Rev. Johan D. Tangelder's (1936-2009) articles can be found at his blog Reformed Reflections.
Religion - Roman Catholic
The Roman Catholic Bible
Why do Protestants have 66, and Roman Catholics 73 books, in their Bibles? We can cooperate with Roman Catholics (RC) in the pro-life movement – I have done so for many years – but we cannot overlook the divide between us. The gulf that separates us has always been theological. The RC Church says the Bible is not sufficient for our lives: she makes the audacious claim that tradition is as important as the Bible. In fact, all RC teaching regarding authority in the Church and in the life of the faithful centers on the triad of the Bible, tradition, and the magisterium (the teaching office of the Roman Catholic church with the pope as its head teacher). In fact, Rome insists that the Bible is dependent on the Church. She defends her position on the ground that the Church both logically and historically preceded the Bible. Hence, the Biblical writings have authority because the Church receives them as holy and divine. As The New Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “The Catholic receives the Scriptures from the infallible teaching authority of the Church.” This view was one of the key reasons that led to a break in the RC Church. The 16th century Reformers believed that the RC Church had substantially departed from the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. They were convinced that centuries of extra-biblical tradition had led her progressively away from the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. The Apocrypha The place of the Apocrypha in the RC Bible marks the difference between RC and Protestant versions. The word Apocrypha is Greek for "things that are hidden" – it is a collection of (depending on how they are divided) between thirteen and fifteen Jewish books written between circa 200 BC and 70 BC in a Semitic language other than Hebrew (such as Aramaic), or in Greek. All but a few were accepted as divinely inspired by the RC Church and integrated into their version of the Old Testament1. In many Protestant editions of the Bible, the apocryphal books were gathered into a section of their own and usually placed between the Old and the New Testaments. In others, they were omitted. Much of the Apocrypha was rejected because of the principle of authenticity. Their historical anomalies and theological heresies made it impossible to accept them as from God despite their authoritative format – they could not be from God and contain error at the same time. And nowhere in the apocryphal books are God's redeeming mercies in the promised Messiah exhibited, which is plainly the unifying message of the canonical Old Testament books. Martin Luther's Bible translation (1534) groups the Apocryphal books together at the end of the Old Testament under the caption: "Apocrypha: these are books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures and yet are useful and good for reading." Article 6 of the Belgic Confession states the Reformed position:
"The Church may certainly read these books (the Apocrypha) and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books."To illustrate the difference between the Old Testament canon and the Apocrypha, I will focus on three books. Tobit narrates the personal history of Tobit, a devout and charitable Jew in exile. One of the principal themes is patience under trial, with trust in divine Providence which is symbolized by the presence and action of the angel Raphael. It teaches an unbiblical conception of angels and demons. First Maccabees recounts the background and events of the 40-year (175-135 BC) struggle for religious and political freedom led by Judas Maccabees and his brothers. It explains the feast of the Dedication of the Temple, a key event in the survival of Judaism which is commemorated in the feast of Hanukkah. The Jewish scholar, Norman Podhoretz points out that a great many American Jews would be surprised to discover that one of the most widely observed of their holidays, Hanukkah, is based on an event recounted in First Maccabees, which, written in Greek, is in the Apocrypha but not in the Hebrew Bible. (And while we are speaking of the Hebrew Bible, it is interesting to note that while Protestants and Jews do not agree about Jesus, they do agree about which Old Testament books belong in the Bible. The Protestant Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Scriptures (except for the order of the books). Roman Catholics, on the other hand, add additional books – Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and 1 & 2 Maccabees – as well as some extra sections to Daniel and Esther, to form their version of the Old Testament. Though most of the Old Testament books are quoted frequently by New Testament writers, these extra RC books are never quoted.) In Second Maccabees we find one of the key passages on which the Roman Catholic Church bases its belief in purgatory: "Therefore [Judas Maccabees] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." With this text the RC Catechism encourages prayers for the dead offered explicitly in the Mass. Tradition and the Bible We and the Roman Catholics do agree on some things, like the shared beliefs expressed in the Apostles' Creed. The problem with the RC Church is with what she has added. She has always maintained that her own traditions are vehicles of divine revelation. The RC Church justifies her belief in tradition on the basis of her theory of doctrinal development. By this she means that certain doctrines were implicit in the early Church, but became explicit as the magisterium (the teaching office of the church) defined and explained them over time. The Second Vatican Council declared in the 1962 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that there are not two separate and independent sources of divine revelation but a single divine revelation expressed and available in different forms. Thus tradition and Scripture "form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is committed to the Church." It said:
"It is clear that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contributes effectively to the salvation of souls."Rome defines tradition this way: "as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (the Church).” This belief, however, elevates fallible human thought on par with the infallible Word of God. And what we discover is not a development of doctrine but a departure from it. The RC exaltation of tradition, the papacy, and the Church, is a depreciation of the authority of Scripture and the supreme authority of Christ. In his The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary Johannes G. Vos points out that the effect of making tradition a rule of faith and conduct along with Scripture is to make void the Word of God by the tradition of the Church. "For the Bible is interpreted in accordance with tradition, not the tradition with the Bible." Interpretation of Scripture Rome does not allow private interpretation of Scripture out of fear that heresy could undermine the authority of the Bible and the Church. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) stated: "God has delivered the Holy Scripture to the Church, and.... in reading and making use of His Word, (men) must follow the Church as their guide and teacher." The same Pope also said that it is impossible for any legitimate interpretation to be extracted from the Bible that is at variance with the doctrine of the Church. Any interpretation that is opposed to Church doctrine is therefore false. In other words, the RC Church professes to provide divine guidance for her members. She demands recognition as the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures. Any official decision on doctrine must be accepted as final. Here the authority of the Church is openly acknowledged as superior to the Scriptures. This is contrary to the Bible and detrimental to the welfare of the Church. The 16th century Reformers were in unanimous agreement in their opposition when Rome claimed that teaching authority lay in the magisterium with the pope as its chief shepherd under Christ. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) The Reformation of the Church was the Lord's intervention to lead His Church back to the Gospel. The decline of medieval Christianity was very gradual. The more serious errors didn't arise until as late as the 14th and 15th centuries. Eventually the result of this descending darkness was serious. The problem was with what Rome had added to the Bible over the centuries. In the wake of the Reformation, the Council of Trent was called to reform the RC church from within. In their discussions the council clearly had the writings of Luther and Calvin in mind. But the doctrinal positions adopted by the Council of Trent were essentially restatements of beliefs and practices of the later Middle Ages. These were teachings that the Protestant Reformers had struggled against. The line between RC’s and the Reformers became clear through the decisions made by the Council of Trent, especially when it declared tradition and the Bible equal sources of faith. Since the Council of Trent the question of canonicity has been settled. On April 8, 1564, it listed by name the sacred and canonical books of both Testaments: 46 (45 if Jeremiah and Lamentations are counted as one) for the Old Testament and 27 for the New Testament. And it added:
"If anyone, however, does not accept as sacred and canonical, the same books entire with all their parts, as they are accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the Old Vulgate Latin edition... let him be anathema."²Since the Council of Trent, the books of the Apocrypha have had binding and canonical authority in the RC Church. Bible Reading In 1898, to encourage Scripture reading, Leo XIII promised that anyone who read the Bible at least 15 minutes a day would earn an indulgence3. A notice concerning these indulgences is ordinarily printed in the first pages of Bibles published for RC. Bible reading, private and liturgical, is strongly encouraged as a means to spiritual perfection, although it is not necessary for salvation. The Catechism states: "The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful...to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ' by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.'" Today the hunger for the knowledge of Scriptures among countless RC is apparent. Many have joined Bible study groups. Conclusion At this juncture, we may well ask whether recent developments in the RC Church show a reversal of unbiblical positions. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) opened the door for new discussions with Protestants in general, and more recently with evangelicals in particular. But did it officially change the older doctrines that precipitated the great divide of the sixteenth century? Has the Council of Trent been formally reversed by these new developments? Not at all! New formulas have been adopted; a new way of thinking has been embraced. But the decisions made by the 16th century Council of Trent still stand. In other words, churches in the Reformed tradition should reaffirm that the Bible alone is the Word of God. By that Word alone the Church lives. The Church ought never to say anything less than the Bible does. Neither is she authorized to say anything more, lest she fall into grievous error by attempting to be wiser than God whose will is sufficiently taught in His Holy Word. The Bible and the Bible alone is the Christian's infallible rule for faith and practice. The historian J.H. Merle d'Aubigne wrote many years ago, "The only true reformation is that which emanates from the Word of God." Ultimately the greatest fruits of the 16th century Reformation will be lost if we turn away from the Gospel and the Word of God. End notes 1 If you end up talking to Roman Catholics about this subject you should be aware that they use the word Apocrypha differently. They don’t apply it to the extra books in their Bible, but rather to books outside their Bible that claim authorship by either Old Testament figures (like The Apocalypse of Abraham) or New Testament writers (like the Gospel of Peter). 2 “Anathema” is the same as our “excommunication.” In the RC Church you can receive a minor excommunication – exclusion from the sacraments – or a major excommunication also known as anathema, which the The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I describes as “being excluded from the society of the faithful.” 3 Roman Catholics believe that even after a sin is forgiven a payment still needs to be paid. Indulgences can be used to make this payment. To restate it, when God forgives a sin the eternal punishment for that sin – Hell – is eliminated, but Roman Catholics believe that temporal punishment for the sin must still be endured – the believer must spend some time in Purgatory. Every indulgence earned, means less time in Purgatory.
Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections.