November 30, 2017

Noah and Baptism

A short meditation on the picture painted by Peter of the role of baptism as a picture of the salvation God intends for his people. The picture Peter is painting is a typeanti-type illustration. In order to understand why this is important we need to know that in the original language the word “corresponding” in the clause “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you” (ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα) represents the concept “anti-type.” The type is the original form of an historical event or person and the anti-type the greater form based upon something they both have in common. For example, Paul uses a form of this typeanti-type illustration in Hebrews 10: 11-14

“Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

From the example above we note the following elements. The Levitical priest offers a ritual sacrifice, ordained by God, to symbolize the covering of sins. But, since it doesn’t actually remove sins the ritual needs to be repeated daily. The action (presenting a sacrifice for sin) becomes a connecting point between Christ and the priest. The priest is the type and Jesus (as a greater priest, being of the Order of Melchizedek) is the anti-type. Both offer a sacrifice for sin but the first symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice, the reality of which actually does take away sin. The greater reality of the anti-type is seen in Christ’s only having to offer his sacrifice once after which he sat down. Three things are important. The connection has to be designed (which is why we often use those examples which use either the word “type” or “anti-type)” the similarities between type and anti-type need to be clear (both Christ and the priest offer a sacrifice), and there should be an indication that the anti-type shows an greater reality God wants us to understand. Using what we have shown of the “type” and “anti-type” concept helps us understand more clearly what Peter wants us to know.

“16b… keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. 17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. 18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (I Peter 3: 16-22)

Before evaluating what Peter says here there are a few textual items which ought to be taken into account. For this reason, contrary to my usual practice, I have left the verse numbers in the quotation above. Those words in italics are no part of the original language and are included at the publishers’ instigation, so that the translation will read more easily for the English reader. In most of the cases in this passage those words are appropriate but in verse 19 the word now is not necessary since the proclamation was made by Noah at the Lord’s behest to those who were perishing because of their sin.

The idea of baptismal regeneration which some find in the language of St Peter is not a necessary inference from the language here used. The noun “salvation” or the verb “save” has implications which are realized by the context. In Matt. 8: 25 it is used of “saving” the disciples from drowning; in Matt. 9: 21, 22 it was a woman who was “saved” from a persistent hemorrhage (though to be fair the meaning Jesus gives it in v 22 is ambiguous). In Luke 8: 12 the word “saved” is applied to those who might be redeemed from sin by the Gospel. In Mark 10: 52 there seems to be a double meaning for the word; the primary is that the man had his sight restored but, since he followed Christ in the road, he may well also have been born again to eternal life. In I Peter 3, therefore, while Peter says baptism “saves” us it may not necessarily mean being regenerated by baptism — after all, though Noah and his children and their wives were rescued from the wicked generation before the flood, they also brought sin into the new world with them. Only after the Final Judgment will there no longer be any sin in the world. Not all who are baptized do, in reality, persevere to the end. Examples of this truth are, of course, Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus and others in the pages of the New Testament.

The clause “preserved through water” (διεσώθησαν δι᾿ ὕδατος) is less accurately translated “brought safely through the water.” Correct translation here is important for finding the connection point of the typeanti-type illustration Peter has in mind. While “were brought safely through through the water,” is a natural reading from the context, it makes the ark the type and the anti-type baptism; whereas to read it as suggested by the original language allows the the water itself to be the connecting point of Peter’s comparison. For a type — anti-type relationship to be properly constructed the connection point is vital. It needs to be the same in both type and anti-type. In the relationship between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:14, the connection point is the federal headship that each obtains towards the human race. The argument Paul makes depends on this fact to explain why the sinful action of one brought death to those related to him and the obedient actions of the other bring life. The translation “preserved through water” would allow the interpreter to refer to the water as the means used to preserve the ark in which were the eight people who were saved as a result.

The footnote, in the NASB translation, which stresses the fact that the water in verse 20 is “the great flood” leads us to a false conclusion if we assume the ark is the type. If the ark is the type then the connection has to be fact that the people were in it. Baptism would then be the thing that saves by our being “in it.” What relationship the flood has to the ark and our relationship to Christ has to do with baptism is not clear, if we take baptism to be immersion (as some do) then the ark is not a picture of baptism. The ark was not immersed in the water of the great flood; it rode on top of it. The best we can do is assume the priority of faith (which led to building the ark) is a connecting point. Having the same prior faith which leads us to be baptized could be used to make sense of the figure. Even so, the interpretation seems to be a little convoluted.

The difficulty is greatly reduced or completely vanishes if the type is the flood and the anti-type the waters of baptism. This interpretation makes more sense of the type and anti-type illustration of the point Peter is making that the water represents the means God uses to pass us from being members in the old, sinful, world into membership a the new world wherein dwells righteousness. Where the type section of the illustration is to do with temporal affairs it would be necessary to make the point that baptism has more than temporal relationships in mind. And that is exactly what we find Peter turns his attention to next.

The parenthetical statement “not the removal of the dirt from the flesh but the appeal of a good conscience to God ” does not make sense if we assume the ark is the point of connection because the ark would not remove dirt from the flesh. If the connection is the water of baptism (corresponding to the water of the flood) then what Peter is saying makes good sense. Water does remove dirt from the flesh but, Peter tells us, though that might be true it is not the point he is making. It is the appeal of a good conscience to God. As faith in God (the result of a good conscience) led Noah to build an ark; as the waters carried him away from the wickedness and evil of the old world into the new world (Gen. 7:17- 8: 19) and he and his family were saved; so putting our faith in Christ (our ark), symbolized our salvation by the waters of baptism. The water represents the Holy Spirit who carries away the wickedness and evil of a bad conscience transferring us into a new world where righteousness dwells (v 22 ff).

In keeping with typeanti-type figure we expect a greater reality to be portrayed in the second part of the picture than that in the first. In Noah’s case the destruction of the world and salvation of his people was purely a temporal blessing while in the anti-type the salvation envisaged is of a spiritual nature. There is also a further element in the picture Peter paints because baptism, itself, points to something which has not yet been fulfilled. Like all the sacraments the final fulfillment of the symbol is in the New Heavens and the New Earth when they will no longer be needed.

So the type “the waters (of the flood)” which pronounce judgment upon the wicked world of Noah, destroying the wicked generation and rescuing him and his family from the real danger of falling into their sin. On one level, then, the waters represent the punishment due to that generation. On another they represent the rescuing agent which transfers them, from the old, to the new world. The anti-type which finds its expression in “the waters (of baptism)” speaks of judgment owing to our present, wicked, generation and their coming destruction. The anti-type also shows salvation comes through the Spirit of God washing us, cleansing sin from our souls, as water washes dirt from our flesh. Beyond baptism we are reminded of the final fulfillment of its promise when judgment again comes upon the earth. Then we will live forever as those marked by baptism and rescued by the grace of God in the world where, in his presence, there is no longer any sin or miseryonly the eternal pleasure of all the saints.

 

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October 31, 2017

Implications of the New Birth

An increasing number of people imagine that, in order to be saved, faith is necessary to complete the work done by the Lord, Jesus Christ. The statement, as it stands, is only partly true. It depends on what you mean by the words “to be saved.” To many today those words are almost an insult. They imply the hearer is unable to look after him- (or her-) self. If you want to find the reason why so many seem to think that Christianity is a prop for the weak and unstable this oft-repeated phrase has done much to encourage that belief. Add the teaching, prevalent in many churches, that man is dying of a sickness called sin and that Jesus is the cure and many in our society feel justified in thinking this religion is for the sick and weak. If they do not feel weak or sick they see no need to be cured or saved.

The first implication of the New Birth, then, is that our grasp of the state of society is different from the views of unbelievers. In many cases it is different from the way we formerly viewed it since we now see many, if not all, of the problems as related to our attitude towards God. This change in viewpoint leads to a conflict in any proposed solutions to those problems. In fact, Christians ought to recognize conflict is unavoidable. The natural man just will not see that he is a part of the problem unless he changes his view of God. We may attempt to form a harmonious and peaceful society but while the earth remains there will always be conflict either out in the open or simmering below the surface.

Even if we begin by teaching that, by nature, man is a rebel against God and prove he has changed the glory of God revealed in nature into an idol which he sets up instead of God, as Paul does in Romans 1, few today would accept this picture applies to themselves. The whole argument, they would say, rests upon an antiquated concept which we, as enlightened human beings, no longer need. Why do we need a God they ask, all that we see and all that exists has come about by natural processes. The growing rate of suicide and the general dissatisfaction with life, that effects even the rich, indicate the truth that man is aware something is wrong with this generally-accepted evolutionary approach to life in our society but sees no way to correct the problem.

The singer, Peggy Lee, captures this well in her song “Is that all there is?”a song that echoes the words of Ecclesiastes: “Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”1 The Psalmist tells us that the fool has said in his heart, there is no God. Modern man agrees, and his attempt to place a particular form of determinism in God’s place is trumpeted from the stage, in schools and everywhere using every means at his disposal to do so. Nor should we be surprised. Putting an idol in God’s place is exactly what Paul describes the unbeliever as doing in the first chapter of his letter to the Roman Church.

“… the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”2

The New Birth gives Christians a different view of both the problems and the idols that are commonly revered in our society. Chief among them is the notion that Science will provide us with answer to all our ills. Whether by means of new medicines, better communication technology or even finding better ways of controlling the wicked among us, science is the future hope for so many in our world today. Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s view of the glorious future of man as we evolve out of our dependence on antiquated prejudices is a hopeful, if unrealistic, attempt to set out the principles needed to put things right without recourse to the powers of an immortal superior being. If we are to understand the implications of the New Birth for defending the faith in society today, we should note carefully some things Paul draws to our attention in this passage.

The first thing to note is that this was written to the church folk in Rome; a sizable section of which were converts from Judaism. As such Paul’s arguments are addressed to people who would be familiar with, and accepting of, the authority of the Bible. The letter was not intended to be used as an argument to convince unbelievers of the error of their ways. Now, though that was not his intent, there are some truths expressed in the letter which may be used for that purpose. Since the evidence in the letter to the Romans is drawn from the Scriptures, however, it is necessary to first establish the veracity of our authority when dealing with unbelievers or use one which already has credibility with them. The latter approach was used by Paul on Mars’ Hill in Athens.3 We may establish our case from non-biblical sources even when our argument is based on biblical concepts. Scripture is necessary, however, for certain elements of the gospel presentation, even if not acknowledged.4

We also note that man is a sinner without excuse for his sin. Man knows God’s power and divine nature from the creation since these things are clearly understood by the creatures in general and by man in particular. Paul makes it plain that man not only dishonors God but denies his existence. He would rather accept a lie, in spite of evidence to the contrary,5 than admit the Creator is God. Paul says men “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”6 Consequently to claim, as did some of the Greek philosophers of his day, that creation came into being without any reference to the Creator, then, is to lie about the nature of the universe so we can deny what we already know about God. Worse, it is foolish to make representations of mere mortals and honor them as gods, in spite of evidence to the contrary, even if it is only poets and playwrights make the folly plain. Thanks to Paul Christians know this is done to avoid giving reverence to the Creator (God) where it rightly belongs, so it can be given to the creature (“Nature,” by way of the theory of evolution). This principle, even if unstated in our apologetic, informs our expectations when developing our argument showing man’s inconsistency in this practice – as Paul did on Mars’ Hill.

Thirdly, God allows the wicked to count their bodies as of little worth because of man’s idolatry. We sometimes forget that idolatry led to abuses against children (offered as burnt sacrifices to Morloch, for example) and of many of the best of the society (some of whom were made prostitutes for the “worship services” of their idols. It was counted as an honor to be so treated in idolatrous societies. If God removes his restraints on the lusts of men’s hearts then sin, having been redefined as honorable behavior, rages unchecked through society. Paul traces this result back to man’s idolatry. It was idolatry which led Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. She placed the word of a creature before that of God. Knowing what had happened Adam still chose to do the same (in his case placing Eve before God). After the initial idolatry they made futile attempts to cover the effects of that sin, tried to shift the blame rather than take responsibility for their actions, and Adam even accused God of creating the situation which led to the sin they committed. The New Birth helps us recognize these attempts for what they are and allows us to use them to return to the real problem when dealing with people of our society. In so doing we learn to answer the concerns they raise so that the discussion is brought step by step to the real problem – man’s sin and God’s solution.

We observe, lastly, that what is called problematic behavior” is, in reality, sin. This is a source of hope to the Christian because, having been born again he knows that others may share the same experience and insights. No matter the prevalence of sin, though the flaws in human nature it reveals, God is more than capable of restoring us and our society to the condition it was designed to be. Since idolatry is the source of the problem, a return to the true God, putting his word into action provides a real hope for the future. That so many of the sins Paul lists find an echo in our own hearts gives us a sympathetic ear to those who recognize their sin and strive to overcome it. All sinners live in God’s world and are dependent on him for all things. The root problem is described as failure to acknowledge God as God or be thankful. New Birth is, therefore, the only lasting solution to the problem. Even though it is possible to have external compliance to the Law of God and so mitigate the evils of our society at heart there is still idolatry until man truly bows the knee to God.

Apologetically this passage shows us that unbelievers do know God, in spite of their claimed ignorance or their denial that there is a God. By paying careful attention to the way they present their argument, we may show that any view which does not accept God’s nature and power leads to logical inconsistencies. Though natural revelation is a help in that direction the only consistent view of the world we live in is that presented by the Bible’s teaching. It is the New Birth which enables us to see the present age has a choice between a determinism which randomly selects which of us survives or the actions of a loving God who allows us the privilege of making fools of ourselves. Not only that, he has made clear on the face of creation the folly of attempting to run the world on our own in order to bring us to realize how much we need his love and guidance.

It is the role and privilege of apologetes like us to have a small part in making people aware of their need. Paul did this at Athens by showing God is not like an idol and so may not be worshiped by using one. We must do the same in our society. The problem is the same but it shows itself in a different guise. As those who have learned how faulty was our own idolatry, we are especially prepared to help others discover theirs. This must be done humbly (we had to be shown ours by God) and with much prayer. Only God can rescue those who are headed for destruction and the need for workers to help with the task is pressing – as our Lord once said:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”7

1  Ecclesiastes 2: 17

2  Romans 1: 18-32

3  Acts 17: 18-32

4  In the passage cited above it was the significance of Christ’s resurrection.

5  As one example, in spite of evidence for the necessity, and existence, of Intelligent Design in the physical world, many would deny this evidence in order to maintain the world came into existence by unplanned random events. It is surely no co-incidence that this also allows them to believe they are not answerable to the God of the Bible.

6  Romans 1: 25

7  Luke 10: 2 NASB

July 30, 2017

Determining the Sense of Scripture

“They have a very mean idea of the Gospel, who consider as frivolous, vain and unjust all that they imagine does not accord with their own reason. … Men are not permitted to wrest the Gospel at pleasure so that it may square with their own sentiments and interpretation.”

– Ulrich Zwingli
Zwinglii Opera cur. Schulero et Schulthessio Turici 1829 vol. 1: 202, 215
cited in The History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J.H. Merle d’Aubigne Book 8, Chapter 3 (epub edition p 625 of 1994)

July 19, 2017

Presuppositional Resources

Westminster Theological Seminary has a number of videos available for purchase. Some of the good ones are by Dr K Scott Oliphint. One of the best of his that I have listened to called “What is Presuppositional Apologetics?” is here. It is also possible to find some by other presuppositionalists here’s one of the best by Greg Bahnsen, called “This is How You do Apologetics.”

I will add more useful resources as I find them.

January 16, 2016

Catholic or Protestant?

617px-Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._(Werkst.)_-_Porträt_des_Martin_Luther_(Lutherhaus_Wittenberg)

Portrait of Martin Luther

Monday, January 18, is the day we remember Martin King in the USA. It is appropriate, therefore, to remember also the historical figure for whom he was named. This is significant because he was never, in his public ministry, spoken of as Martin King he used his father’s name and they both used that of the great German Reformer – Martin Luther.

The question at the head of this article raises the matter of just exactly what was it that made Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk different from the rest of the Church of his day. Different enough so that he was eventually driven out of the Church because of his protest against her abuses. It was not the protest against abuse in itself. There had been many who were concerned about the way the clergy of the time were failing to lead the people in godliness.

Martin Luther, however, argued that the problem could be traced back to a lack of proper authority. While the teaching of the bible was reinterpreted by the self-same clergy there could be no real reform since interpretation was, in the mind of many, a matter of opinion. Let us be clear of what this means in today’s terms. The Church of Martin Luther’s day had no trouble affirming the infallibility of Scripture and its inerrancy. They believed very firmly that the authors of the various books were governed by God so that what they wrote was the very word of God. Where the problem came was in the area of the ordinary person’s ability to understand that word. If one teacher differed in his interpretation from another, the difference could be put down to a matter of opinion. And, as everyone knew, any particular Scripture could mean almost anything.

Martin and the other Reformers argued that not only was the word of God clear and thus able to be understood by the ordinary person, if they used the same principles they used to read and understand any piece of writing. Then they set about translating it into the common tongue so it could be read by everyone. The final straw as far as the Catholics were concerned, however, came with the claim that the Scripture were all that a man needed in order to be saved from the wrath of God against sin. This last step, it was claimed, made the priesthood and the whole Catholic church redundant and, in a sense, that was true. What was more significant was that it gave the ordinary man the ability to review what his priest said and see if it was, in fact, what God said.

That did not mean there was justification for setting aside the teaching of the church completely but it did mean that there was a standard by which the conflicting voices of opinion could be tested. That the Scriptures are clear implies that others will have reached the same conclusions about what it teaches as we do when we read. That they are all we need means that when a man disagrees with the clear, contextual, teaching of Scripture his opinion is not necessarily correct. Suddenly, throughout Europe there were many who wanted to read and discover for themselves what it was that God had to say. The Reformation was born.

It was not a coincidence that Martin Luther King challenged the wisdom of his age. It was common to argue that Africans were intended to be perpetual slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Even great commentators made this error in interpretation. As a preacher, Martin Luther King studied his Bible and discovered that it did not support such an interpretation. Jesus had come in order that all men should be free. There would no longer be distinctions of race in the house of God – not even those which God had instituted in the Old Testament. His dream of shared meals around a common table was based on that teaching of the Bible. As a result great progress has been made towards recognizing the unity of the family of God under his word.

Itis both Protestant and Catholic, Roman Catholic, to recognize that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. But it is the Protestant who places tradition under the authority of Scripture – who claims Scripture is our clear and sufficient guide to salvation. That is because the Protestant argues the Holy Spirit speaks clearly enough to us in the Bible so that we may be saved from condemnation if we but read it carefully, paying attention to what it says.

Portrait of Martin Luther: “Lucas Cranach d.Ä. (Werkst.) – Porträt des Martin Luther (Lutherhaus Wittenberg)” by Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 308462. Licensed as in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

September 15, 2013

Van Til

Underdog Theology video on Van Til

One of the best introductions to the significance of Cornelius Van Til’s contribution to apologetics I have heard. Thank you, Warren Cruz, for posting this video along with the many good things you post for our edification.

March 4, 2013

Another book on Creation

Here is a book review of a book which I think ought to be better known. One caution — the author writes for a Reformed audience. I think this is an error. The problem is waay more important than something which is confined to the Reformed branch of Christianity. Christians everywhere, of every denomination, who are concerned to be biblical in their belief and practice need to read and understand the message of this book. That, of course, assumes the review is accurate and I have no reason to believe it is not.

http://bylogos.blogspot.com/2013/02/refuting-figurative-genesis.html#more

February 8, 2013

Ten Myths about Calvinism

A review of the book by Kenneth J Stewart

As one who was a beneficiary of two streams which came from three of the earlier resurgences of Calvinism mentioned by Kenneth Stewart in the later part of his book, it is my pleasure to share a little about this book and explain why it is worth spending the time to read and (I believe) the money to buy. The three earlier resurgences he mentioned provided those influences which led me into the school of theology known as Reformed (or Calvinistic).

They were Abraham Kuyper’s influence in bringing together the two groups of Churches in the Netherlands to form the Gereformeerde Kerken in de Nederlands which in the early twentieth century led Dutch settlers in New Zealand1 to, eventually, form their own congregations. They had been encouraged to join with the Presbyterian Church in that country only to discover that there were ministers who were teaching contrary to the Scriptures. When their protests fell on deaf ears they sought to discover how this situation could have come about and why nothing seemed to be able to correct the problem. They asked help from the churches “back home” in the Netherlands and discovered the problem was the 1901 Declaratory Act which had allowed ministers and elders to subscribe to the Westminster Confession, believe that the Bible was not the actual word of God but that it “contained the Word of God.”

The second of those resurgences was the upheaval in the Presbyterian Church in America which led J Gresham Machen and several others to form Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.2 When the dutch folk in New Zealand went looking for ministers to help fill their pulpits they wanted to do more than merely provide ministers from the GKN, they wanted to be a truly New Zealand Church and so they sought to find Presbyterian ministers who would help them be more in line with the views of New Zealanders. The men from the OPC who came to New Zealand added their doctrinal views (based on the Westminster Standards) to those of the GKN ministers (the Three Forms of Unity). The denomination took the official stand that the Westminster Confession would be added to the Three Forms to become the doctrinal standards of the new Church. It was a bold move which has not always made life easy but it has helped the New Zealand Church appreciate both the continental and also the Scottish streams of Reformed theology.

If the former were influences on the Church in which I first met the doctrines of grace, the third resurgence was an influence on me personally, as it encouraged growth in the faith. This was the brought about through Banner of Truth Trust books and a few (way too brief) meetings with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others of the trust. As a member of the New Zealand Armed Forces I traveled enough to learn that God had reformed-thinking people in denominations and places where we might least expect them.3 I was, for a time, a Christian book seller who gained great benefit from a policy of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing house of charging only for books sold. This gave access to all the wonderful reprints of men who wrote before the turn of the century as well as some of the best of American writers in the Reformed tradition. As one, therefore, nurtured in the traditions of the Puritans, the Continental Reformed and Presbyterians (both Scottish and American) it has been a pleasure to read Kenneth Stewart’s book and find in it the same concerns that modern Christians develop an appreciation of the breadth of our heritage.

The one place in the book where I felt Mr Stewart failed to completely achieve his goal of dispelling the ten myths he set out to examine was in the section dealing with Calvinism and Art.4 The flaw is not in what he says but that he does not include enough in his purview as art. The Calvinist is not just accused of iconoclastic views, with respect to paintings and sculptures, which warp his sense of art but that his view of music is lacking. The fact is that much of modern Church music, when compared with the traditions of the Medieval Church, came from the Reformation. In Presbyterian circles alone it was commonly argued that excessive syncopation and (in some quarters) even harmony was unfitting for Church music. Art however involves much more than painting, sculpting and music. It would have been good to see how Mr Stewart dealt with the theatrical arts (and hypocrisy), adornments and embellishments on housing and furniture and even the way printers modified the shapes of the letters in the printing process. Or how about the change in the way painters (like Vermeer, Constable, Turner and so on) saw art as representational or how how the Reformation changed the way fictional stories were written.

In spite of this flaw, however, this is a book which delivers what it sets out to do, both in terms of its dispelling the myths it describes and encouraging a broader understanding of our Reformed heritage. In all fairness it has to be said that even the chapter dealing with art provides enough information to show the charge against the Reformed is greatly exaggerated and in most cases refers only to art in the Churches. We too seldom appreciate the significance of the encouragement given by the Reformers to art in the home and in public places. Second to providing good information which leads to further study (and, yes, Mr Stewart even makes some worthwhile suggestions in that direction) is the ability to ask thought-provoking questions of the reader. Certainly the last question in this chapter on the arts is a challenge to any thoughtful Christian of our era.5

His dealing with the four myths perpetrated by Calvinists is well done. He certainly manages to convince the reader that, as Calvinists, we do seem to have a poor record when it comes to dealing with extreme versions of our tradition. This writer found it a little difficult at times to decide whether the use, say, of a term like “High Calvinism” was a synonym for “Hypercalvinism,” a replacement for “consistent Calvinist” or a way that opponents use to refer to those who “believe all five points of Calvinism.” Sometimes, surely, our difficulty in dealing with the extreme versions of Calvinism is that – on investigation – some of those extremists are more difficult to pin down than we first thought. Then, too, the very breadth of Calvinistic thought allows for faulty expressions in which others find implications never really intended by the author. Perhaps the most useful result of reading Mr Stewart’s contribution to this discussion is the way he brings to mind details not contained in the book itself but which corroborate his arguments. This process is consolidated by the questions at the end of each chapter which give an opportunity for sharing some of these insights with others, when used as a study guide. In this writer’s opinion it is well suited for such a role.

For me, personally, the chapter I enjoyed the most was the one dealing with the TULIP acrostic. The historical journey back to the Canons of the Synod of Dordt was a delight, especially for one for whom both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms were the common fare in the Church. In discussions with Arminians it has quite often been a frustration that they “know” exactly what the letters of the acrostic say. They actually know all the evil implications of the words (all of which are found in the conclusion to the Canons)6 but little of what Calvinists really believe. If they are prepared to listen and learn – which occasionally happens – it has been my experience that taking them through the articles of the Canons of Dordt is a good way to explain the Reformed Faith (or the doctrines of grace). It truly is a better way to help explain the gospel than to start by dealing with the misconceptions than using the approach suggested by TULIP. The acrostic may be helpful in certain situations, say as a quick check on where the conversation is going. It is natural to take the time to explain in detail what we actually believe are the implications as well as the hallmarks of the Reformed Faith rather than to be tied too closely to the five points of the acrostic.

A wise man once said it is not necessary to cover the whole of the Bible’s teaching in one meeting; better to have another meeting or several more. Likewise, if the person you are discussing with wants to change the conversation, do so. Evangelism is not a sales pitch. It’s answering questions about why we believe as we do. When the answer has been given, unless the person wants more information (in which case they will ask) be quiet and let the Holy Spirit do his work. Our aim is not to win a debate it is to bring the person to love our God and serve him. And the acrostic does not do that at all well, it encourages a sales pitch or (worse) even a confrontational approach. It does not lend itself well to presenting an easy-to-grasp picture of the doctrines it is supposed to represent – hence the reason so many conference speakers have to modify that names of some of the five points.

A good thing about using the Canons is that the origin of the five points in the Remonstrance can be explained first. This approach allows a serious student to research those five points and begin to see the real problem that led to Christ’s death on our behalf – the real effects of sin. The problem is that discussions on the basis of the TULIP acrostic often lead to unnecessary confrontation and, in order to defend the five points, there is little place for the equally Calvinistic emphases on the need for evangelism, the responsibility of repentance and faith and even the place of the Law in guiding the life of the believer. For the Arminian who happens to be a Christian these are clearly taught in the Bible and to deny them (by our silence) only reinforces his (false) idea that we do not believe in these things. If the only result of reading this book is that it makes the reader aware that stating the doctrines of TULIP is an inadequate way to explain to those of other traditions what is distinctive about Calvinism then Kenneth Stewart will have done a great job of helping Christendom begin to repair the breach in the unity which should obtain between Christians of the Protestant Church.

The six myths which are attributed to Calvinists cover a broad range of topics from missions, the role of the Law in the life of the believer, theocracy, creative arts, gender equality and racial inequality. All but the one dealing with creative art are well done and even that one was certainly dealt with persuasively. None of the charges laid against the Reformed faith are new, nor are the answers to the charges. Where Kenneth Stewart is beneficial is in the way his argument is brought together. He threads his way through the subjects and neatly avoids giving unfair criticism to either detractor or defender. It is a masterful example of how a strong case can be made without causing unnecessary offense.

It is the writer’s hope, however, that this book will be like Calvin’s Institutes. It was designed to explain the truth about the doctrines taught among the Protestants of the King of France’s subjects, as an answer to the calumnies and distortions currently circulating about those beliefs. From a small booklet it grew until it became a really useful compendium of truth. Perhaps a more extended version could include some discussion of the way Reformed pastors handle key texts which are germane to the myth. This could be useful since it is often alleged that Reformed believers need to twist the plain meaning of Scripture to find support for their views. This writer, for one, will be interested in any new offering from the pen of Kenneth J Stewart.

1 Recovering our Bearings pp. 281-2. It was the results of Kuyper’s work which gave these immigrants a solid basis in the Reformed Faith. Even as late as 1980, nearly a hundred years later, new immigrants from the GKN still have a tendency to view Scripture as the very Word of God. The importance of a biblical Church home where God was honored, the role of Christian schools and even integrity in politics was a continuing legacy of this work.

2 Loc. cit. p. 279. The OPC men have, with their ability to get to the heart of the issue, been a perfect foil to the tendency of New Zealanders in the Church to compromise. Their Presbyterian background has made the Church less of a imported religion and more one with which New Zealand-born church members can relate. Their presence was vital while the young church was getting onto its feet and, especially after the changes which have taken place in the GKN and the CRC in the past 25 years, has enabled them to accept that new ties can be forged where the concern of all is for the truth of Scripture.

3 Loc. cit. pp. 274-76. Involvement in this movement (even though it was towards the end) gave an insight into the Reformed faith that Mr Stewart’s book may well make available to others who have not had this benefit. There is a tendency to view the less-than-perfect presentations of the gospel of non-Reformed Christians as being no presentation at all. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to call this “a most subtle form of legalism.” Clarity in presenting the gospel is important but a breadth of vision helps us avoid arrogance – an important element often lacking in the young convert.

4 Myth Eight “Calvinism undermines the creative arts.” loc. Cit. Pp 197-217.

5 “In Western societies, at least, illiteracy has been virtually eradicated, and yet, if anything, moderns are more likely than a generation ago to draw their ideas from images (whether photographic or cinematic). Discuss this persistence of the image in the forming of opinion and conviction.” p. 216

6 That the doctrine of the Reformed Churches concerning predestination, and the points annexed to it, by its own genius and necessary tendency, leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion; that it is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil; and the stronghold of Satan, where he lies in wait for all, and from which he wounds multitudes, and mortally strikes through many with the darts both of despair and security; that it makes God the author of sin, unjust, tyrannical, hypocritical; that it is nothing more than an interpolated Stoicism, Manicheism, Libertinism, Turcism; that it renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please; and, therefore, that they may safely perpetrate every species of the most atrocious crimes; and that, if the reprobate should even perform truly all the works of the saints, their obedience would not in the least contribute to their salvation; that the same doctrine teaches that God, by a mere arbitrary act of his will, without the least respect or view to any sin, has predestinated the greatest part of the world to eternal damnation, and has created them for this very purpose; that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety; that many children of the faithful are torn, guiltless, from their mothers’ breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell: so that neither baptism nor the prayers of the Church at their baptism can at all profit them” – Canons of Dordt, Conclusion.

December 23, 2012

There but for the grace of God …

I remember reading someone’s comment that it is the height of bad taste to use recent tragedies for political or religious profit. At the time this concern was first raised I understood the concern of the person to ensure sufficient weight was allowed to the nature of the tragedy and the reality of the grief which the survivors would undergo. Such concern is certainly valid and ought to be taken into account when dealing with those personally involved. Something also should be said about the implications both political and religious for those who were not personally involved in the event.

Politically, the debate over safety in the church and classroom has followed predictable lines. In spite of the media frenzy over the matter, any decisions taken about increasing (or otherwise) control of firearms in this country should be unaffected by the tragedy. The arguments should be valid whether the tragedies never occurred or whether they actually did. It is true, for example, that making it harder for people to get weapons will lessen the mortality rate among disputants. It is also true that regulations are mostly effective among law-abiding citizens – those who would not have committed the crime in any case. It is certainly true that we cheapen the value of the lives of those who died by using them merely as pawns in an argument which should be taken on principle.

The principle concerned ought to be whether the framers of the constitution right or wrong in granting the citizenship the right to bear arms? While it has become common to use pragmatic arguments to justify the laws of the land the principles ought to be established on other grounds. Do citizens have the right to defend themselves if or when anyone brings deadly force to bear against them. Those who amended the Constitution to safeguard the right of the citizens to bear arms believed they did even if only as a part of a “well-regulated militia.” If they were wrong, subsequent history notwithstanding, they were wrong. If they were right then again they were right regardless of subsequent history. To use tragedies as a result of a crime involving firearms to change the present state of affairs does not change the principle as witnessed by the ability of both sides of the debate to make a strong case from the events.

Religiously there are two major errors to avoid. The first is to claim this tragedy is of greater importance than it really is. It is no greater, in God’s eyes, than calling someone a fool or manipulating the economy to put money in one’s own pocket. Manipulating the economy making thousands of people destitute in order to make financial gain from their tragedy is sinful. So is forcing a business to close, though they employed many hard working people, to show the nation that one form of arbitration is more effective than another. The degree of suffering inflicted may merit a greater degree of punishment in Hell but the final destination for all sin is the same. While we consider murder to be a heinous crime against mankind. worse than (say) bearing false witness, God sees raising a hand against God’s image-bearer as equally sinful. It is sin – in all its forms – which merits the punishment of eternal death. In the tragedies which are the occasion of our consideration, God has decided the final destiny of all those who died – the innocent and the guilty. It is a greater tragedy that people suffer the results of their rebellion against God than that their time on this earth is cut short. Enoch lived about a third of the time of his contemporaries. His absence from this life was a tragedy to his family – but not for Enoch, himself.

The second error to avoid is that of thinking that, because someone does not believe in God they are not subject to his Law. The Bible makes it clear that when we accuse someone of breaking the law and do the same thing it is a reflection of the Law of God written on our hearts. The intensity of upset about the event shows that Americans in general (and others around the world too) know that murder is wrong. They show that they recognize doing harm to those who deserve nothing but our compassion and help is contrary to man’s nature. But this is a Christian concept. It is based on the Law of God. If we espouse the doctrine of evolution, for example, survival is only the right of the fittest. And, in a world where killing of the weaker and defenseless is commonplace we should not be at all upset by the death of the young and those deemed less able to contribute to society UNLESS there is a distinction between man and the animals. Such a distinction is denied by those who believe in deterministic evolution based on natural selection.

In Christian belief there is a final judgment coming which all will face. Christians are (sadly) not as good at warning their non-Christian neighbors of the implications of that fact. The recent killings bring us very near to a general recognition of the need for such a judgment where the wicked, in this case the killers, will get what they have earned. The problem is that we are very good at imagining we will, of necessity, be excluded from that group. After all, we console ourselves, we are not killers. We have forgotten the truth in an old Puritan saying. When observing a condemned criminal who was about to receive his just punishment, the Puritan in question is reputed to have said: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It was a reminder that murder begins with hatred in the heart and, as sinners, we are all guilty before God’s Law. God always deals justly and fairly with the wicked; a category to which we all belong. Whether you remain in that category depends on your relationship to the Messiah of God.

That is where the real investigation should arise from this event. The tragedies of the recent past are unlikely to change many. That does not have to be true of everyone. We are all as bad, in principle, as the killers – we have all broken God’s Law – so the question to be decided is whether we can avoid the like punishment they will face in God’s Court. If you do not know the answer to that question, dear reader, you need to talk about it to someone who has discovered what the Bible has to say.

August 24, 2010

Dr James White

Dr James White, of Alpha and Omega Ministries, speaking at the God and Culture Conference (see below), began his first address by making the statement that our society is in the process of collapse because it has rejected God’s Law. Taking I Peter 3:8-18 as his theme he spoke on what he called the classic proof text for apologetics, making the point that because of the state of society a clear understanding of the discipline is even more important in our era than it was in the time of Peter.

It was his contention that it is a blessing to society when there is a clear-speaking Christian Church. The moral obligations of the Old Testament are still relevant, he said. The tongue, he said, reveals clearly what is in our hearts. “Who is there to harm you,” he quoted, “if you are zealous for God?” Do not fear their intimidation, (verse 14) he said, that is a part of the enemy’s great strategy. If we are afraid we can easily question whether it is wise to speak out against abuses of God’s name or character. The way to overcome the intimidation, he added, is to sanctify Christ in your hearts as Lord. This led to the first of a series of explanations of the use of the Greek language of the text. Sanctify means in this context to consider Jesus Christ as holy, set aside by God to be the Messiah. Lord (the word kurios) is often used in the Old Testament to refer to the Messiah or to Jesus as the second person of the trinity.

He spoke further of the need for the church  to be concerned with the holiness of God. Being willing to treat him with reverence is the beginning of apologetics. Part of the problem with modern evangelicalism is they assume a to familiar attitude when it comes to their dealings with God. He referred at this point to Isaiah 29:23. Another part is treating God as if he is the answer to a human problem – like a product from the local supermarket needed to make your life complete. He then quoted one of his elders as saying “What you win them with is what you win them to.”  Then he spoke of the person to whom the “defense” is to be made: the one who asks. Our apologetic, he said, is colored by our view of the gospel. Attitude to Christ leads to humility not just within ourselves but also with respect to the person who asks about our hope.