Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Moving Fences

I grew up in what I thought of as a very traditional Presbyterian church. The ministers wore robes. The choir wore robes. There was an organ. There was a split pulpit (lectern on the left of the congregation, pulpit on the right). There were stained-glass pictures of Jesus around the church, especially the large one up behind the choir loft. We had Sunday school and youth fellowship. There was no Sunday evening service. There was no Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

When I got to seminary, I began to discover that my home church was not a very traditional Presbyterian church. Or it was a very recently developed tradition. I did not make that discovery based on the assigned readings in my classes. For the most part, nothing I was assigned to read had been published before 1950. (I was in seminary from 1977-1980, so that would be the equivalent today of being assigned nothing written before 1988.) But, driven by my own curiosity and the encouragement of fellow students, I read well beyond what was assigned. I learned about traditional Presbyterian practices, such as the singing of psalms exclusively without instrumental accompaniment; the eschewing of any visible representations of any of the persons of the Trinity. I learned about the history of Sunday school (initially developed as an evangelistic outreach to unchurched children). I learned about midweek prayer meetings. I learned about, and even attended, a church that had a Sunday evening service (though sparsely attended) as well as the Sunday morning service. I read, and read about, the Reformed confessions of faith (I was never required to read any of them in my seminary classes). I read about the history of Reformed liturgies. I developed a very different idea of what “traditional Presbyterian” meant. Some of the changes to the tradition that had occurred in the four centuries between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century I thought were good and valuable. Others I thought (and still think) unsound and unhelpful, and actually damaging to what being Presbyterian means. But I was able to evaluate those changes because I had made a study of them.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” (The Thing, “The Drift From Domesticity,” 1929)

I once sat in a presbytery meeting and heard a young recent seminary graduate express a scruple about the prohibition of images of Jesus that is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 109. He said that he didn’t believe it was correct. When asked if he had ever read anything defending the Catechism’s view, he said that he didn’t need to. He further said that he wouldn’t read anything defending it unless the presbytery required him to, because the view expressed by the Catechism was so obviously wrong. The presbytery declined to require him to read anything and granted him an exception on the matter. He struck me as the type of “modern reformer” referred to by Chesterton. He didn’t see the use of the fence and wanted it removed. Perhaps it is uncharitable of me, but it appears to me that many of the debates in the PCA are between the two types of reformers mentioned by Chesterton. Some want to do away with the fences without having any idea why the fences are there. Would that all of us would be the second type of reformer, knowing not only why the fences were put there in the first place, but also why now it makes good sense to move them (or not).

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Knowing Your Ignorance

Some people think I know a lot. Perhaps I do in some comparative sense, but in an absolute sense, I am an ignoramus. I am only too aware of the vast gaps in my knowledge, even in the areas in which I am supposed to be an expert. We are all condemned to ignorance by the mere fact of our finitude. If you read a book a week for eighty years, you would read a little over four thousand books. If you read a book a day for those same eighty years, you would read about 29,000 books. Most people don’t come close to the first number, let alone the second. But even if someone managed to read 29,000 books in their lifetime, it would still be a minute fraction of the number of books in print. According to Wikipedia, about 300,000 books (new books and re-editions) were published in the US (in English) in 2013. If only half of those were new books, there were still over 150,000 new books published in that year alone. It is simply impossible for someone to keep up with the flood of information available to us. Granted, not all of these books are useful or significant, but the number that are useful and significant, even in a limited area such as Old Testament studies, is far beyond the capability of any one person to keep track of, let alone master. These facts, however, should not deter us from seeking to increase our knowledge, particularly in the things of God.

As I read discussions and comments on Facebook, it quickly becomes apparent that most of us pretend to a level of knowledge that we simply don’t have. This pretense stems from pride and arrogance, and a desire to win whatever argument we have entered into, which itself speaks of pride. Ministers in particular seem to be guilty of this, though that may be no more than my observation based on the self-selection of my friends on Facebook. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that ministers are supposed to be knowledgeable about the Bible and theology. But ministers of the gospel are supposed to be concerned about the truth. It is not helpful to the cause of truth when we pontificate out of our ignorance, rather than comment carefully out of our knowledge. This applies to all of life, and not just to the limited sphere of social media.

It is often more helpful for a minister to say, “I don’t know, but if you need me to I will find out.” This admission accomplishes three things. First, it rebukes us for our pride. Second, it strengthens our humility. Third, it drives us to a more diligent study of those things that we, as ministers of the gospel, ought to know. These are all good things in themselves. Further, it serves to encourage those in our churches to remember that their ministers are not infallible, and to pray for us in the burden that we bear to hold forth the truth in righteousness.

May we resolve to be more humble about our knowledge, to be more self-aware regarding our ignorance, and to strive for a more thorough knowledge of the truths of which God has made us stewards.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Preparing Young Men for the Ministry

Someone in a Facebook group posted last week that their pastor had his eighteen-year-old son preach for the congregation, and they asked whether that was right or not. It provoked quite a bit of discussion. I realize that some ecclesiastical traditions try to get young men into the pulpit as soon as possible, arguing that they need experience in the pulpit if they are going to be effective preachers. I think it’s a bad idea, for several reasons.

First, young men put in positions of authority tend to become living, breathing examples of “knowledge puffs up.” Second, unless a man has some physical limitation, almost anyone can be taught to speak effectively in public. Certainly, preachers need practice, but I’m not sure it helps the congregation to put teenagers in the pulpit. Practice can be provided in other ways and in other contexts. Third, I’m sure that most young men do not meet the qualifications for elder set out in 1 Timothy and Titus.

What do I look for in a young man who thinks that he might be called to the ministry? First, the qualifications set out in the Pastoral Epistles. But in addition to those, I think four other qualifications are necessary. First, does the young man have a servant’s heart? I read often about teenagers doing community service to pad their applications for college. But, does this young man look for opportunities to serve? Does he serve when no one is watching? Does he work as hard at service when he is not being watched as when he is? The work of the pastor is a work of service. Someone without a servant’s heart may preach well, but he will never be a pastor.

Second, is he teachable? It is unfortunately the case that many young men, especially in Reformed circles, go through “cage-stage” Calvinism, in which they think themselves to be the one appointed to cure all the ills of the church. But young men need to learn. They need to learn that a good grasp of the Five Points is not enough. They need to learn that others, particularly older folks, often know more than the young man does, due to life experience and faithful participation in the life of the church. Is the young man willing to be corrected? It he receptive to the sometime painful rebuke?

Third, is he faithful? I have occasionally heard younger people referred t as “possibility junkies.” That is, they won’t commit to anything because something better might come along. Or, having committed to something, will renege on it because something better has come along. So, is this young man faithful, making commitments and staying with them even if “something better” comes along? Is he a regular and faithful participant in the life of the church? Is he in attendance week in and week out, or is he frequently absent?

Fourth, is he patient? Often, young men are in a hurry to get into the pulpit. He has a real zeal for Christ. He has a true desire to proclaim the gospel. This combination of zeal and desire tends to produce an urgency on his part to enter the work of the ministry. But God is rarely in a hurry. In fact, God often puts a man in the wilderness for a while before he puts him in the ministry. Is this young man ready to wait for God’s timing?

God does occasionally call young men into early and evident pulpit ministry. Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon are often cited as examples. But these men are the exception, not the rule. Is a young man willing to be part of the rule, rather than the exception? Then, if he is also a teachable, patient, faithful servant, maybe he is ready to begin training for the ministry.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Basic Readings in Church History: Suggestions for the Beginner

Many Christians are poorly versed in Bible content and in theology, and last week I gave some suggestions for changing that. But compared with their knowledge of church history, those same Christians are virtual scholars in Bible and theology. For many, it seems that the history of Christianity began with their birth, or perhaps their rebirth. There is little to no sense of where they currently live in relation to the broader scope of the entire history of the church. Yet there is a vast library of accessible books that can correct that problem. For the person looking to begin an exploration of church history, I would recommend the following books.

First is S. M. Houghton’s Sketches from Church History. This is not a continuous history, but rather, as the title suggests, glimpses into episodes and persons from the past. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the first 1,400 years of church history, with the remainder focusing on the Reformation and, after the Reformation, focusing on the Protestant Church, especially in the West. While the selection of material doesn’t give the reader much on the Eastern Church or on the development of Roman Catholicism after the Reformation, it is a good introduction for a modern American evangelical. It has plenty of illustrations, which is also helpful.

Second would be Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. This book is now in its fourth edition. It is also light on the Eastern church but gives more information on Roman Catholic developments in the post-Reformation period. It is divided into forty-eight chapters, most of them in the ten to fifteen-page range. Thus, over the course of about a month and a half, at the rate of one chapter a day, the reader can get a decent introduction to the history of the church.

A third recommendation is Church History: The Basics from Concordia Publishing House. I am less familiar with this work, but it appears to be a good alternative to Shelley. It is an abbreviated form of the book The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, also from Concordia. This is a substantial church history in one volume. One advantage of it is that it includes readings from primary sources in each of the ages. A similar work would be Justo Gonzales’s The Story of Christianity, a popular choice for use in seminary church history survey courses

A little more advanced treatment can be found in the Pelican History of the Church series. This is a seven-volume collection consisting of the following: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages; Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789; Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions; and (a relatively new addition to the series) Owen Chadwick, The Christian Church in the Cold War. As indicated, this is more demanding reading, but it gives a more thorough treatment of many of the doctrinal disputes that characterize the history of the church.

Finally, I would recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson is not a church historian, but this is a readable account. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. From Kirkus Review: “Though the narrative is fast-paced and the style vigorously economic, the account brims with telling details and reasoned judgments and never seems superficial, Johnson eschews all special theological pleading and abides by professional canons of evidence and objectivity. Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, he maintains a healthy balance between the internal and external dimensions of Christianity's development; events and ideas mesh into a coherent story.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Basic Readings in Theology: Suggestions for the Beginner

Most Christians learn what theology they know from the preaching and teaching of their pastors. For some churches in the Reformed tradition, this has been accomplished by expository preaching in the morning service and catechetical preaching in the evening service. Expository preaching moves through books of the Bible, explaining and applying the teaching of the biblical text. Catechetical preaching uses one of the Reformed confessions or catechisms as the basis for explaining the doctrines of the Scriptures in a systematic fashion. In our day, however, this dual approach is uncommon, and the biblical and theological knowledge of people in the pews is scattered and unsystematic. Though people may have some vague ideas of the general content of the Bible, and some similarly vague ideas of such basic Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the full humanity and full deity of Christ, their knowledge is weak. The following suggestions are provided for those who want to learn more about the Bible and more about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Bible Content

I recommend Michael Williams’ little book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens. This book devotes about half a dozen pages to each book of the Bible. He gives a theme verse for each book, a summary of the content of the book, and a brief treatment of how that book points to Christ. It is very helpful to read the section, then read the book of the Bible that the chapter discusses. This works very well with a Bible reading program that goes through the Bible in a year. Another useful tool is the KJV Reformation Heritage Study Bible. This gives commentary on each chapter of the Bible designed to help the reader understand and apply the text. The Reformation Study Bible is also quite helpful, with detailed introductions to each book, as well as commentary throughout, and additional essays on key topics.


I recommend here Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine. This is an abbreviated version of his Systematic Theology, which in turn is something of a condensed presentation of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was done originally for high school and college students as a summary presentation of systematic theology. Another good resource is Basic Christian Doctrines, edited by Carl F. H. Henry. It is a collection of forty-three short essays by a variety of evangelical scholars. They were originally published in Christianity Today in the 1950s and were collected into one volume in 1962. It is available used at a very modest cost, and is also available in PDF form online:

Another useful book is Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Alexander was one of the first professors at Princeton Theological Seminary and, though written in the nineteenth century, his presentation is clear and accessible.

For those in Reformed churches, the classic confessions and catechisms also provide a solid foundation for the beginning reader. My recommendation would be to start with the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is available online in both its original form and in modern English. From there, the reader can move to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Commentaries are available on all these documents. The Westminster documents were written in the middle of the seventeenth century to provide a standard for the Church of England, though the Church of England never adopted them. The Belgic Confession was written in the sixteenth century for the churches in the Netherlands. The Heidelberg Catechism was another sixteenth-century document from the German Reformed churches. The Canons of Dort came out of the disputes over the teachings of Jacob Arminius in the early seventeenth century. These resources are all available online.

The person who studies these is well-equipped to move on to more substantial reading regarding both the Bible and systematic theology.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Pastors and Congregational Reading

Most pastors realize in seminary that they have gotten themselves into a profession that requires reading. Whether they read much before seminary, the class requirements force them to read a great deal. This is especially true for Presbyterian and Reformed pastors, as these churches have always put a high value on an educated clergy. By the time they finish seminary, they have gotten used to reading demanding material—academic biblical studies, systematic theology, church history. It is easy, then, to forget that at one time they really struggled with that material.

I have been a voracious reader since I learned to read. But until I got to college, I didn’t read anything that made any demands on me as a reader. Then my first class in college was a philosophy class. I passed the class, but I’m pretty sure I understood no more than about ten percent of what I read for that class. After I was converted, I read the Bible a lot, but I didn’t read a great deal of Christian literature. I did read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Sit, Walk, Stand (both perfectionist standards back in the day), but I remember almost nothing else of what Christian literature I read. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which seemed to me to be heavy reading. I also read another work by Lewis, either the Problem of Pain or Miracles, I’m not sure which. I think I finished the book but found it a very difficult slog. Then I read his Pilgrim’s Regress, which I didn’t understand at all.

After seminary, I have gone back and revisited some of those books and didn’t find them difficult. But by then, I had read enough difficult theology that I had the context and the foundational understanding to read Lewis with ease. I think something like this happens with most pastors. They have gotten used to reading difficult material, so they tend to think that everyone ought to be able to read it. 

I may be entirely wrong about this, but I think most people who can read don’t read. And most people who read don’t read anything that makes demands on them as a reader. They read what is comfortable for them. Pastors need to keep this in mind when they recommend books for people in their congregations. The fact that a given book is not difficult for you does not mean that it won’t be difficult for them. There’s a reason that most of the books on sale in a Christian bookstore are theologically substandard. They are written by people who have a substandard theological training, but they are also written for people who don’t know much theology. These authors may have bad theology, but they know their audience and they write to their audience
It’s something to keep in mind when recommending books for people in your congregation. Ask yourself if the person will not only willingly read the book but also understand it. If you have visited the person’s home, you should have a good idea of what they read (or whether they read). You should also keep a list of less demanding, more accessible, sound Christian books. Avoid recommending the fat books with small print, unless you know that is what the person reads. Avoid reprints of the Puritans. There’s nothing wrong with the Puritans—a lot of good stuff there. But most modern Americans would not be able to work through Puritan works without a lot of help. The Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks are about the most accessible Puritan works available. As a pastor, you are a shepherd. You want to feed your sheep good food, but it had better be food that they’re willing and able to eat.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A prayer for today

O Lord, we pray today for those who are anxious and in distress. Let them put their trust in you. Let them know that in you they will never be put to shame. Be quick to hear their prayers and deliver them speedily from their distress. Teach them to find in you a rock of refuge, a fortress of defense. In their trouble help them to commit themselves into your hands. Direct them, that they may not trust in useless idols of their own making, but instead teach them to place their full trust in you, their saving God. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (Ps 31:1-6)