Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Spirit was Really Moving

More than thirty years ago, when I was in grad school at Duke, I knew a number of the undergrads who were involved with InterVarsity. A Christian singer, who was very popular at the time, but who has since gotten old and faded into obscurity, was giving a concert in Raleigh. I went to the concert with several of the students because someone bought me a ticket, and I was curious. It struck me as an average rock concert (I had been to a few of those) with Christian lyrics. On the ride home after the concert, one of the students said, “The Spirit was really moving tonight!” I thought to myself that he needed to have been to a few more rock concerts. Because the performer did everything that any good rock musician does to get the crowd involved. Now the Spirit may have been moving that evening. I have no way of knowing. But my guess is it was simply stirred-up human emotion that made everyone feel good.

We have a tendency as Christians to link good feelings, whether it be at a concert or a worship service, with the moving of the Spirit. But we should be careful about that. We are too dependent on our feelings and too little dependent on faith. We are told that the Spirit moves where he will, but it is also clear that the Spirit moves in conjunction with the preaching of the Word (John 16:1-7; Eph 5:18-20; 6:17; Rev 19:10). We also know that the Spirit can move to convict as well as he can move to exalt. In fact, most of the preaching that we are given in Acts is used by the Spirit to convict of sin.

Thus we should recognize, by faith, that when the Word is faithfully preached, the Spirit is moving, whether we feel good, bad, or blah. It is probably the case that in any given service, some are being convicted by the Spirit, others are being encouraged by the Spirit, and others are being spiritually strengthened by the Spirit, but they all may or may not feel the Spirit. We are to walk by faith and the assurances of God’s Word, not by sight, or whether the service or the concert, made us feel good.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Message to Beginning Seminarians

Welcome to graduate school! If you want to be successful here, you need to know a few things about how seminary works.

First, this is school, not Sunday school or church. We do what we can to help you in your spiritual development. We have chapel. We have faculty advisee prayer groups. We have a course in Reformed spirituality. But you are responsible for your spiritual development, as a man and, as it applies, as a husband and father. We faculty can help, but we aren’t mind readers. If you need help, ask for it.

Second, classes are not exercises in test-preparation. Be aware that tests and examinations can cover anything that the professor covered in class, as well as whatever was in the required reading that he might not have covered in class. It is your responsibility to learn the material presented. If the professor is specific about what will be on tests, he is being kind. It is not in his job description to do so.

Third, you are no longer in college. In college, you might have gotten away without preparing for class, because the professor covered everything in his lecture. Some of your classes here will be like that. But some will not. Some will require that you have worked through the material ahead of time; that you have mastered it, and can discuss it in an intelligent fashion. Make it your aim to do that for every class, as a man studying to show himself approved.

Fourth, learn to listen and take notes. Most of you will want to use your computers to take notes. You are sufficiently fast typists that you can get down every word. But if you do that, all you are doing is taking dictation. Try taking notes with a pencil and paper. Listen carefully to what the professor, and other students in discussion, are saying. Write down the salient points and also what will help your remember the significance of those salient points. You will find that careful listening and note-taking are hard mental work. Then, after class review your notes. Make additional notes that will put everything in context. For some of your classes, your professor will distribute relatively detailed lecture outlines. Do not think of the lecture outline as a substitute for note-taking. Make your own notes and use the outline as a help to remembering.

Fifth, learn to use the Seminary style sheet and the resources given there. Learning to use proper academic style in writing papers is no more than common courtesy, and is part of the culture of an academic institution.

Finally, please do not think of seminary training as a series of hoops through which you must jump before you can get to the real work of the ministry. If that is your opinion, I ask you to drop out now. Seminary is introducing you to the tools of ministry and training you in their use. After seminary you will still have much to learn that can only be learned by practice. But at least you will have the tools you need, and you will know how to use them.

Again, welcome to seminary, and may God bless you in your studies.  

(Suggested by:

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A Well-Ordered Church, William Boekestein and Daniel R. Hyde

In our day in the US, the church is thought little of, even by many Christians. Oh, they attend church but probably not with any regularity. In a recent study, for example, regular church attendance was defined as three times in eight weeks. In other words, a regular attender attended church less than half of the time. This fact, more than any other, indicates the low view of the church held and practiced by many Christians.

This book is an attempt to address that problem. It is a non-technical work on ecclesiology, the study of the church. Underlying the book is the view expressed in the title of a nineteenth century work by Stuart Robinson: The Church of God An Essential Element of the Gospel. The book is divided into four parts: the church’s identity, its authority, its ecumenicity, and its activity.

As to the church’s identity, the church belongs to Christ. He is its head, and in him the church finds its unity. As to the church’s authority, it comes from the Bible to the church through Christ’s appointed officers. As to the church’s ecumenicity, there is an internal ecumenicity, which is expressed in the mutual edification of churches within a denomination. There is also an external ecumenicity, in which churches of different denominations work together for the sake of the gospel. The activity of the church is multiform, including teaching, worship, witnessing, and discipline.

The book presents a standard Reformed view of the church. This is seen in two primary ways: first, in its references to the Scriptures as the basis for all principles regarding the church; and second, in its frequent reference to Reformed doctrinal confessions and catechisms. Each chapter is accompanied with questions for discussion and additional reading. There is an additional bibliography at the end of the book. Most of the additional reading material is non-technical, and easily understood by the average church member.

No one will agree with everything presented here. But the reader who is interested not only in the “what” of the church, and not only in the “why” of the church, but in his own relation to the church will find this a stimulating aid to his thinking about the church.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Modern English Versions and the Greek New Testament

Some of us remember the days before the internet and Google, when a new software program came with an immense user’s manual. If you have ever seen any of these in a used bookstore, you probably noticed that it was relatively unused. The problem with those manuals is that they really were unusable. The indices were usually poorly done and the text was written by the people who wrote the program. Between “geek speak” and making gratuitous assumptions about what the computer illiterate user actually knew, the manuals provided more frustration than clarification to the user.

Modern English versions, in relation to the Greek text of the New Testament, are somewhat like those old user manuals. They tend to assume too much, and hence give the ordinary reader too little information. For example, the Preface to the ESV makes the following statement: “The ESV is based on … the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.) , published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland.… in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition.”  The Greek texts referred to here are the NAET of my prior post. Similar statements are found in the prefaces of other modern English versions. The problem is that, while accurate, it is full of “geek-speak” and thus of relatively little use to the ordinary reader of the New Testament. It does not, for example, note the existence of MT and TR texts. Granted, the NAET is currently something of a consensus text among New Testament scholars, but a significant minority support for an MT probably should merit some recognition. In my estimation, the Preface to the New King James Version is much more informative and more “user-friendly” for the ordinary reader.

The other point at which most modern English versions under-serve their readers is in the textual notes. For the most part, the notes themselves are clear enough, but the rationale behind them is unclear. So, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the NIV reads, “the man of lawlessness.” There is a textual note that says, “Some manuscripts sin.” In other words, some manuscripts have “man of sin” instead of “man of lawlessness.” The ESV has the same note. The NASB (1995) has “lawlessness” but no textual note, as does the NLT. What the various versions do not make clear is why in some cases there is a note, whereas in other cases there is not. One might think that the idea is to have a note whenever there is a difference between the NAET and the MT or TR, but that is not supported by the evidence. For example, in regard to one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament (1 John 5:7), the NIV and the NASB (1995) both have a note explaining the “missing” verse, the ESV and NLT do not.

On this issue, my philosophy is “less is more.” The modern English version indicates its textual preference in the preface. The reader should assume that the translation reflects that textual preference. In that case, textual notes are unnecessary, unless there is a case where the translation differs from its preferred text. Then there should be merely a note indicating that the translators have preferred a different reading. As it is, most of the textual notes serve merely to confuse the reader.

Next: The New Testament text and the Westminster Confession.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Removing Verses from the Bible

What do the following verses have in common: Matthew 17:21; 18:16; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; Luke 17:36; 23:17; Acts 8:37? That’s right. They are all verses that the "heretical new translations" have removed from your Bibles. Those “heretical” bibles include the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. This assertion showed up in my Facebook newsfeed from a Facebook friend who wondered about it, because he had looked those verses up, and sure enough they were missing from the Bible he was using.

First, this is just an old scam from KJV-Only folks that want to stir up people against any translation but the KJV. But the real question is, why are these verses “missing” from most modern versions? The answer is: textual criticism. (Warning: the following discussion is simplified.)

Translations of the New Testament are based on printed texts that are collations (detailed comparisons) of ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts that we have of the New Testament originated in the period between the early second century and the late Middle Ages. These are copies of copies at least. Any time a text is copied, errors will occur. Such things as misspellings, mishearings (some manuscripts were copied by scribes from a manuscript that was read to them), accidental skipping of lines and words, “corrections” supplied by the copyist, and other issues accrue in the copies. New Testament scholars, in working to determine what the New Testament originally said, need to get behind these copies to what the original read. They do this by comparing manuscripts, and evaluating diverse readings on the basis of generally accepted principles. The result is the modern printed Greek New Testament.

There are, at present, essentially three modern printed Greek New Testaments: the Textus Receptus (TR), the Majority Text (MT), and the Nestle-Aland Eclectic Text (NAET). The TR is the text that lies behind the King James Version of the Bible. It was based on a relatively small number of Greek manuscripts. In the four centuries since then many more manuscripts have been recovered.

The MT and the NAET are both modern (20th-21st century) printed texts. They both use a large number of manuscripts that were not available to those who developed the TR. The main difference between the MT and the NAET is the set of principles used to compare and evaluate differing readings in the manuscripts.

Most New Testament scholars today (including theologically conservative scholars) hold that the NAET is the closest to the original New Testament. Some modern scholars (mostly theologically conservative) hold that the MT is closest to the original. Almost no one holds that the TR is the closest to the original.

All modern versions of the New Testament, except for the New King James Version, are based (with some variation) on the NAET. In the judgment of the editors of the NAET, the verses in the list above were later additions to the text of the New Testament. In other words, the modern versions are not removing verses from the Bible; the TR was adding verses to the Bible.

I’ll have more to say in a later post.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Making Sense of Kings

For many people, the Books of Kings are two of the most confusing books in the Old Testament, for the simple reason that the historian is telling two stories at once. Here are some clues to helping make sense of it all.

First, get the big picture. The two books easily divide into three sections. The first section is the reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11). The second section is the period of the Divided Kingdom, down to the fall of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 12-2 Kgs 17). The third section is the story of Judah, from the end of the northern kingdom until the Babylonian Exile. Another big picture item is the story of Elijah and Elisha, which covers most of the material from 1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 8.

Second, get the names straight. The northern kingdom is Israel. The southern kingdom is Judah. The first king of Israel is Jeroboam. The first king of Judah is Rehoboam. Later on there is a second Jeroboam in Israel. There are two kings named Jehoram (also spelled Joram), one in Israel and one in Judah. They rule about the same time. There are also two kings named Jehoash (or Joash), one in Israel and one in Judah. They also reign about the same time. Then there is a King Azariah in Judah, but he is known as Uzziah in 2 Chronicles and in Isaiah 6.

Third, notice how the historian tells the story. He begins (after the split) with Israel, telling the story of Jeroboam. After the death of Jeroboam, he tells the story of the kings of Judah until he reaches past the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Then he shifts back to Israel. It is the back-and-forth nature of the narrative that loses most people.

Fourth, the order of the story is as follows, identifying the king, the nation (I for Israel, J for Judah), and the length of his reign: Jeroboam (I, 22 years); Rehoboam (J, 17 years); Abijam (J, 3 years); Asa (J, 41 years); Nadab (I, 2 years); Baasha (I, 24 years); Elah (I, 2 years); Zimri (I, 1 week); Omri (I, 12 years); Ahab (I, 22 years); Jehoshaphat (J, 25 years). At this point, we have arrived at the end of 1 Kings. 

Ahaziah (I, 2 years); Jehoram (I, 12 years); Jehoram (J, 8 years); Ahaziah (J, 1 year); Jehu (I, 28 years); Athaliah (J, six years, a usurper); Joash (J, 40 years); Jehoahaz (I, 17 years); Jehoash (I, 16 years); Amaziah (J, 29 years); Jeroboam II (I, 41 years); Azariah (J, 52 years); Zechariah (I, 6 months); Shallum (I, 1 month); Menahem (I, 10 years); Pekahiah (I, 2 years); Pekah (I, 20 years); Jotham (J, 16 years); Ahaz (J, 16 years); Hoshea (I, 9 years). At this point, the nation of Israel is destroyed by Assyria.

After the end of Israel, the story is straightforward, because there is only one nation to deal with. The rest of the kings of Judah are as follows: Hezekiah (29 years); Manasseh (55 years); Amon (2 years); Josiah (31 years); Jehoahaz (3 months, then taken captive to Egypt); Jehoiakim (11 years); Jehoiachin (3 months, then taken captive to Babylon); Zedekiah (11 years). At that point, Judah was destroyed, bringing the period of the monarchy to an end as well as ending the narrative of the Books of Kings.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?

I can hear the answer now: Same way I read any book, one word after another.

I just re-read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and it got me thinking about how we read our Bibles. He makes a distinction between reading for use and reading to receive. Since he is dealing with literature, he’s really making the distinction between reading literature for the sake of the literature (reading to receive) and reading for some other purpose, such as learning truths about life, or learning a worldview (reading for use).

In some sense the Bible is literature. But I fear that most Christians never read it as such. They read it for use, to use Lewis’s category. They read it in bits and pieces. They read selected verses that they’ve drawn together with the help of a concordance so that they can do word studies, or investigate particular doctrines. That’s not necessarily bad. It is an application of Paul’s statement about “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16ff. But the end result of such an approach can be that the Bible is never really seen as anything more than a mine of doctrinal or practical nuggets: verses that can be committed to memory for some memory plan, or pulled out in case of need, like the lists of recommended verses for different counseling situations.

That may be part of the explanation for why many sermons on the psalms seem to completely miss the psalm itself. The preacher has, instead of seeing it as a literary whole, seen it as a series of doctrinal assertions. It may also explain why many Christians have a hard time reading the Bible. They’ve been taught that they need to read it for use. But as they begin to read it, they realize that the only parts they understand are the handful of verses they’ve memorized. Even the Sunday school stories they learned are a lot more complicated than they remember them to be: there’s a lot more to Noah than a big boat, or to David than the battle with Goliath. And don’t even mention the prophets.

Another part of the difficulty is that the Bible isn’t written at a fifth-grade level. Yet folks seem to think that they ought to be able to understand it the first time through. I’ve been reading it regularly for over forty years and there are parts that only now I think I am beginning to get a real handle on.

So try this the next time you read the Bible. First, lower your expectations. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand. There’s even a lot you’re not going to like. Second, get a Bible without the chapter and verse divisions. When was the last time you read a piece of literature that had page-long chapters subdivided into verses? Then just read it. Read it for its own sake. Read it receptively. Read it the way you would listen to a friend tell you a story. You listen because you want to hear, not because you think what he says is going to change your life, or teach you something you didn’t know before. The Bible will do that, because it’s God’s word. But if you read it just because you think you must, you’re missing out on the joy of it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Study Bibles

On my desk at home I have the following study Bibles, in no particular order: the NLT Study Bible, the NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition), the CEB Study Bible, and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. In my office at school I have at least the following (there may be more, but since I’m not there right now, I’ll probably miss some): the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Harper-Collins Study Bible (1st and 2nd editions), and the Apologetics Study Bible. In the past I have also owned the NIV Study Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, and no doubt others. In addition, there are dozens more study Bibles on the market, some for general use, and many intended for niche markets.

There are two strengths to study Bibles. First, they all include helps to understanding the message of the Bible. These usually include introductions to the books of the Bible, a concordance, maps, timelines, additional theological notes, and brief running comments on the biblical text. In that sense, they are a mini-library for biblical study. For ordinary Christian folks, who have neither the time, the training, nor the patience to labor through larger commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and other reference works, these Bibles can be an immense help for working through what is often a puzzling book.

Second, because of the helps the reader can often be directed away from dangerous misunderstandings of the Bible that are promulgated by various cults. Or the reader may misread something, due to a failure to understand the language. Study Bibles can generally help the reader avoid these kinds of mistakes.

But study Bibles also have shortcomings. In order to keep the size of the Bible within a reasonable scope (the ESV Study Bible really pushes the envelope here, at almost 2,800 pages) something has to give. Generally what is lost is commentary on the text itself. Comments on difficult passages are often the first to suffer in this regard. Comments can be terse to the point of being incomprehensible. The comments are usually written by specialists on the various books of the Bible, who sometimes do not have a good sense of what the ordinary reader needs. In that sense, it can be like the old computer “help” manuals. They were written by the people who wrote the programs, so they did not understand the needs of the computer-illiterate user.

Second, study Bibles can interfere with actually reading the Bible. Having the text of the Bible surrounded with cross-references, commentary, devotional paragraphs, and theological notes easily distracts the reader from actual reading. They are Bibles, as the name says, for study, not for reading.
Do I recommend study Bibles? Yes, for study. My current preferences are for the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. The former is a significant improvement over its previous edition, with better and clearer commentary, as well as improved additional materials. The latter, while being somewhat hobbled by the KJV, is a very fine resource for family worship.

However, in addition to a study Bible, I also recommend a reading Bible. My preference here is for the ESV Reader’s Bible. Until you begin to read a Bible such as this one, you will not realize how distracting verse numbers, chapter divisions, and textual notes can be to the progress of your reading. It is much easier to read continuously without those distractions, and that continuous reading helps the reader to get a good grasp of the big picture of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Final Note on the 43rd PCA GA: RPR

RPR is shorthand for the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. Being a connectional denomination, the PCA exercises “review and control” by means of higher courts (presbyteries and GA) reviewing the actions of lower courts (sessions and presbyteries). The purpose of RPR is to check that everything that the presbyteries do is proper and is done properly. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is not proper, this is considered an exception of substance. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is proper, but is not done properly, that is considered an exception of form. When RPR finishes its work, all exceptions of form are sent directly to the presbyteries. All exceptions of substance are brought to the GA for review and approval. This year, there were three particular exceptions of substance that drew debate. Two separate presbyteries were cited for exceptions of substance in that they approved men who hold to paedocommunion (the idea that young children, even very young children, may properly take the Lord’s Super). This view is directly contrary to our doctrinal standards, but how significant a departure it is, is a matter of debate. In both cases, RPR brought it as an exception of substance, though with significant minorities voting against the citation. In both cases, a minority report from RPR was also filed, asking that the exception of substance be removed. In both cases, the minority report was supported by the GA, so in the end, neither presbytery was cited.

We appear to have reached the point in the PCA where the paedocommunion view is being increasingly tolerated. This is a serious mistake, as the view weakens our commitment to our doctrinal standards, and undercuts the doctrine of the sacraments as it is laid out in our standards. For those who want a more detailed discussion of the issues, I recommend this:

The other major exception of substance concerned a presbytery that ordained a man who wasn’t entirely sure that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women as elders. RPR brought it as an exception of substance. Again, there was a minority report, arguing that the presbytery should not be cited. In this case, the minority report was defeated. Two things about this are troubling to me. First, there is the fact that a majority of the presbytery did not find this man’s uncertainty problematic. This man was going to be teaching and preaching in a denomination that holds that the ordination of women to church office is contrary to the Scriptures. If he is uncertain on that point, on what else is he uncertain? Second, this case indicates that there is an undercurrent in the PCA that is not opposed to women in church office. The long-term effects of such an undercurrent will not contribute to the long-term health of the church.

However, the presbytery has now been cited, and must respond to the GA next year with an explanation of their actions.

In general, it was a peaceable assembly. My own sense, however, is that the assembly tries to do too much too quickly. As a result, many things do not get done well.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Results of the Overtures Committee

The overtures that had been submitted to the GA were given to the Overtures Committee. This committee reviews the overture and submits their recommendation to the Assembly as a whole. The Assembly can adopt the recommendation of the committee, they can overturn the recommendation of the committee, they can recommit the overture to the committee for further discussion, or they can commit the overture to the next year’s committee for perfection. I list here the recommendations from the committee regarding each overture and the action taken by the Assembly.

Overture 1, requested a change in the rules regarding a judicial commission. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 2 and 9 requested a study committee regarding recreations on the Sabbath. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overture 3 requested a change in the wording of baptismal vows. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 4-6 asked for changes in various presbytery boundaries. Those overtures are given to the Mission to North America Committee for execution.

Overture 7 asked for a change that would require church officers to testify in judicial cases (sort of an anti-5th Amendment change). The Committee recommended that this overture be approved, modified by some changes in the language. This recommendation was, after considerable debate, rejected by the Assembly, nullifying the overture.

Overture 8 requested some changes in the BCO regarding the treatment of church officers without call. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

The overture regarding the establishment of a provisional presbytery in Paraguay was given to the Mission to the World Committee for execution.

There was one overture and several personal resolutions that desired memorializing particular men who had died since the last GA. These were all approved, both by the Committee and by the Assembly.

Finally, there was a personal resolution from TEs Sean Michael Lucas of Grace Presbytery and J. Ligon Duncan of Mississippi Valley Presbytery (the text of that resolution can be read here: This resolution was given to the Overtures Committee to deal with. After some nine hours of occasionally heated debate, the Committee brought a recommendation that the resolution be referred to the next GA, with added grounds for that referral. Those grounds can be read here: This was taken up by the Assembly after the worship service on Thursday evening. After about an hour and a half of debate, the Assembly voted to sustain the Committee’s recommendation. This was followed by a time of prayer. A fuller description can be read here:

And such were the actions of the Overtures Committee of the Forty-third General Assembly of the PCA.

The Mechanics of PCA GA

Those of you who were hoping for my post-mortem on GA will have to wait a couple of days, until I have had more time to process it.

This is a description for those who have never been to GA, expect never to go, and yet are somewhat curious about what goes on there. (Yes, I know. All twelve of you.)

The Assembly begins with a worship service on Tuesday evening. The departing moderator preaches, and the Lord’s Supper is observed. Following the worship service, the business begins. The first item is the announcement of attendance and determining of a quorum. (for the quorum requirements, see PCA BCO 14-5). This year the attendance was 991 TEs and 329 REs, which is fairly typical, though a bit higher than the last few years. Ostensibly, there should be an equal number of TEs and REs, but a 3-1 TE margin is typical.

After the announcement of the quorum, a new moderator is elected. The office alternates between RE and TE. Since last year’s moderator was a TE, this year’s moderator was RE Jim Wert, about whom I know almost nothing, except that he did a fine job as moderator. After the election of the moderator, clerks and parliamentarians are appointed, and the meeting is recessed for the evening.

Wednesday begins with the report of the stated clerk: statistics on the denomination, communications of various sorts, etc. Then the Interchurch Relations Committee gives its report, and we hear greetings from representatives of various denominations with which the PCA has fraternal relations.
After the report of IRC, the various committees of commissioners give their reports. These include an informational report from the permanent committee or agency, and the approval of recommendations for the coming year. These tend to be brief and for the most part non-controversial. The committee reports that generate debate are those of the Overtures Committee and the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. I’ll discuss those in the next few posts.

The last committee to report is the Committee on Thanks. This expresses thanks to the host presbytery and all those involved in making the GA run smoothly. RE Mel Duncan from Second PCA in Greenville, SC has become something of an unofficial permanent member of the Committee of Thanks, because he writes a good report, full of local color.

Though the Assembly is docketed to go through Friday at noon, the last several years there has been a concerted effort to finish early. This year, everything concluded about 11:45 Thursday evening.

In the next two posts, I’ll give my post-mortem on this year’s GA.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The PCA GA: What is it?

The PCA GA is the annual denominational meeting for the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA is the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, though it is only about one-sixth the size of the largest: the Presbyterian Church (USA).


In large part, PCA GA is a convention, much like a business or academic convention. There is a large Exhibit Hall in which the PCA Permanent Committees and Agencies (to be explained later) have informational and promotional booths set up. Other institutions have displays as well. As might be expected, there is a bookstore run by the Committee on Discipleship Ministries (one of the Permanent Committee). In addition to the exhibit hall, there are seminars on various topics related to ministry and missions scheduled around the business sessions.

Business Meeting

The PCA at the national level has five Permanent Committees: Administration, Discipleship Ministries, Mission to the World, Mission to North America, and Reformed University Ministries. In addition, it has five agencies: Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary, PCA Foundation, PCA Retirement and Benefits, Inc., and Ridge Haven Conference and Retreat Center. Each year, these committees and agencies submit reports, with recommendations for the coming year, to the Assembly. These reports are reviewed by ad hoc committees of commissioners (CoC: committees made up at each GA out of attendees from the various churches). These committees are made up of one person from each presbytery (82 presbyteries total). Most of the time, fewer than half of the presbyteries are represented in these committees of commissioners. These CoCs review the report of the committee or agency then present their report to the Assembly as a whole for action. For the most part, these reports and the votes on them are pro forma.

Court of the Church

Part of the responsibility of the GA is to handle cases that come to it from the lower courts (sessions and presbyteries). These cases come in one of two ways. They may come from the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). In these cases, the SJC has already rendered a verdict in the case. It is, however, the responsibility of the GA as a whole to either approve or disapprove the judgment of the SJC.
The other way in which cases come to the Assembly is through the Report of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR). If some exception of substance is taken with some aspect of a presbytery’s actions, then the GA as a whole must deal with that case. Most of these are pro forma, as the Assembly will often simply go with the recommendation of the CRPR. But in cases where there is not a unified report from the CRPR, the case may induce a fair amount of discussion at GA.

Finally, in some sense, the GA is a church. The meeting of the Assembly is opened with a worship service (Tuesday evening), and each other evening of the meeting (Wednesday and Thursday) there is also a worship service.

It should be obvious that with all that to be done, and three-and-a-half days to do it, the schedule can be pretty hectic.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Wrap-Up on GA Overtures

TVP and Sabbath Recreation

North Texas Presbytery produced an overture urging the formation of a study committee to rethink the “recreation clauses” in the Westminster Standards’ treatment of Sabbath observance. Tennessee Valley Presbytery duplicated the overture, but added a brief paper. In this paper, it is argued that there is neither a direct command against Sabbath recreation, nor is there a good and necessary consequence argument against Sabbath recreation. The chief problem with the paper was that the paper utterly failed to address the essential question: What is recreation? The paper specifically rejects dealing with the historical situation: “It is our belief that the case for or against recreation on the Sabbath must be made from Scripture. For that reason we do not enter into the historical situation that gave rise to the Assembly dealing with this specific matter.” But it is only in the historical particulars that we can find out what the divines meant by the word “recreations.” Unless we understand what that word means in the context, we have no business stating a difference with the Standards, because we don’t know what we are differing from. We might even be in full agreement with what we think we differ from.

There are more problems with the TVP paper, but I’ve already said enough. In sum, I don’t think the TVP paper forwards the discussion at all.

From the Potomac to Paraguay

Potomac Presbytery has brought an overture asking that a commission be formed in order to form “a provisional Presbytery in Paraguay with the goal of establishing an indigenous Presbyterian and Reformed Church.” While I have no principial objection to the idea, the supporting rationale makes me wonder if maybe this step is coming a little too early in the process. As far as I can tell from the rationale (which is less forthcoming than it should be), there is one church and three active church plants. But we have no idea of the size of any of these works. We have no idea what “active” means. There is one pastor, so it’s not clear who is doing the church plants. There is one pastoral candidate. So there seems to be a total of four churches, three of them plants, and two pastors, one of which is only a candidate. I appreciate the vision for the future, but it seems things in Paraguay need to get more established before the PCA starts talking about establishing a provisional presbytery there.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Overture 8: On TEs, REs, and Deacons Without Call

According to this overture, there are currently about 300 ministers in the PCA (out of a total of about 4,400) without call. That means that they have served a church (or in some other capacity requiring ordination) in the past, but are not currently serving in a situation that requires ordination. Frankly, I’m surprised the total is that low. Given that the PCA has about 1,700 churches (including church plants) there must be a large number of men serving as missionaries, RUM campus ministers, chaplains, etc. Ministers can be without call for a number of reasons, but some men seem to be perpetually without call. As the BCO currently reads, a presbytery needs a two-thirds vote to divest a man who is without call for an extended period. This overture seeks to change the BCO so that ministers without call need to report to presbytery annually. If a man remains without call for three years, the presbytery shall divest him of office, though it may, by majority vote extend his “without call” status for another year.

This strikes me as an eminently sensible change. The fact is, men who are without a call for an extended period, particularly if that period extends past the three-year mark, are usually men that churches do not find acceptable. I remember a few decades ago being in a presbytery with a man who had been without call for about five years. After he finished seminary, he had served briefly in a small church. It had not gone well, and within a year or so, he found himself without call. Though he applied for as many ministerial positions as he could, somehow he was never the right fit. Finally after more than five years, the presbytery divested him without censure. It was hard on him, but it was the right move. This overture makes such a change a little easier. It also means that a man must keep his presbytery informed about his activities.

As for the deacons and elders part, I have some sympathy with the changes, which essentially mirror those of the minister. The elder or deacon must report annually to his session. His official relation as officer in the church may be dissolved by a majority vote of the congregation. However, many churches in the PCA rotate elders and deacons, so a man may be inactive as an elder or deacon for a larger number of reasons than simply that he has become unacceptable to the church. A man may, for example, be a ruling elder in one church from which he moves to another town. The church to which he moves may have a full complement of elders, so he essentially becomes inactive, or at most functions unofficially as an elder.

Ultimately, I wish that Tidewater Presbytery had divided this into two overtures: one dealing with ministers and one dealing with ruling elders and deacons. I’m interested to see how this overture will be dealt with by GA.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Overture 7 from New Hope PCA, Fairfax, VA

Ordinarily, overtures will come to the GA from presbyteries, but Potomac Presbytery rejected this overture by a vote of 18 for and 24 against.

It has already received substantive treatment online. Here is a two-part argument against the overture: Here is an extended argument in favor of the overture, responding to the critique from the Ref21 blog:

The essence of the overture is that church officers (that is, ministers, ruling elders, and deacons), when they have been accused in a church court, “shall be required to testify before the court of original jurisdiction.” For example, if charges are brought against a ruling elder in a church, he would be compelled to testify in the case. Given the current reading of the PCA’s Book of Church Order, that would not be the case.

The argument against the overture draws heavily on criminal and civil court precedent, going back to the New Testament and then to the period of the Westminster Assembly and subsequent Presbyterian history. The response makes the case that the church court is neither a civil nor a criminal court, and that most of the material that the critique brings forward is really immaterial. To my mind, the defense of the overture makes a compelling case. There is one significant addition that is made in the defense of the overture, having to do with a church judicial case when the testimony of the accused and the results of the case may influence a civil or criminal proceeding. That addition would be the proviso that if civil or criminal proceedings either have begun or are likely in the case, the church court will hold off on its proceedings until the civil/criminal case has been adjudicated. The church court may suspend the officer from his official functions until the ecclesiastical proceedings are complete.

My own sense is that this overture (with the additional proviso) would be a wise addition to the BCO. Anyone who has ever been involved in a church judicial case (at least in the PCA context) probably knows the frustration of dealing with a man who essentially “pleads the 5th.” The two-fold consideration brought by this overture (that a church officer may be compelled to testify, and that ecclesiastical proceedings be postponed until civil/criminal proceedings have been completed) will not solve all difficulties faced by church courts, but it will solve a significant number of them. 

I am afraid, however, that the overture will meet a fate at GA similar to the one it met with in Potomac Presbytery.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of Presbytery Records

Since I have posted a number of things from RPR this week, some have had questions about what we are and what we do. So here goes, in a somewhat idealized fashion.

The PCA is a connectional denomination, which means that churches are mutually responsible to one another. The way that is expressed in Presbyterian government is in church courts (which are not the same as civil or criminal courts). At the lowest level is the session, which is the ruling body of the local church, made up of the minister (Teaching Elder, TE) and Ruling Elders (REs). Over the churches in a particular geographical location is the presbytery, made up of TEs and REs from the sessions of the churches in that region. Above the presbyteries (of which there are 82 in the PCA) is the General Assembly (GA), which is the national body, and which meets annually in a gathering made up of TEs and REs from the churches. Each court above the session is to exercise “review and control” (R&C) over the courts below it. So the presbytery exercises R&C over the local churches, and the GA exercises R&C over the presbyteries. What that means is that the presbytery is to review the actions of the various local sessions every year to make sure that everything is being done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40 is the “life verse” of Presbyterianism). Additionally, every year the GA is to review the actions of the presbyteries, toward the same end.

Presbyteries are responsible for such things as the examination of men for ordination as ministers, taking men training for the ministry under care and oversight, overseeing pastors and their relationships with their churches, and similar matters. Each year, each presbytery is to submit its minutes to the GA for review to make sure that everything that has been done is not only something that should have been done, but also that it has been done in the proper manner. That review is carried out by the Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records. The RPR is made up of one representative from each presbytery. It meets at the denominational headquarters in Atlanta about a month (although this year it was only two weeks) before the annual meeting of the GA. Before that meeting, all of the presbytery records are distributed to the members of the RPR. Usually, each member receives 2-3 sets of minutes to review, and is given guidelines for that review. This is referred to as a first reading. Each set of presbytery records is given two first readings, by RPR members who are not members of that presbytery. These first readings are done before the actually meeting of RPR.

Then, at the meeting of RPR, the minutes are reviewed again by teams of two, looking particularly at matters noted by the first readers (again, no member of RPR may review the work of his own presbytery). In any of these readings, anything improper that has been done (such as approving an inadequately trained man for ordination) is flagged as an “exception of substance.” Anything that has been done in an improper fashion is flagged as an “exception of form.” Once this “second reading” has been done, all the results are compiled in a master list in alphabetical order by presbytery. The RPR then goes through this master list, discussing each exception and evaluating its correctness. The exceptions of substance are compiled into the final report of the committee that goes to GA, where it is discussed and voted on. Exceptions of form are sent back to the presbyteries for their education. Any exceptions of substance that are approved at GA are sent back to the presbyteries for a formal response to the next year’s GA. Those responses are also reviewed by RPR and are flagged as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” For the latter, the presbytery must offer a better explanation and defense of what was done.

That is in brief the work of RPR. As someone once said, Catholics go to purgatory; Presbyterians go to RPR. Or, it takes a special kind of crazy to actually enjoy the work of RPR.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Overture 3: Parental Promises in the Baptismal Vow

When parents in the PCA present their children for baptism, they take three vows regarding their children. The first vow recognizes the child’s need of Christ. The second vow recognizes God’s covenant promises to his people and their children. In the third vow, the parents “unreservedly dedicate your child to God….” The language of dedication goes back to the late nineteenth century and earlier Presbyterian books of order. For many, the language of dedication is too much like the practice many Baptists have of a dedication ceremony for their children. (Just as an aside, it has always been curious to Presbyterians that many Baptists will argue against any New Testament basis for infant baptism, while apparently failing to recognize that there is even less evidence for any practice of infant dedication.)

This overture seeks to change the language of that third vow by replacing the clause “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God” with the following: “Do you now acknowledge that God in his providence has placed this child within the covenant family, and entrusted (him/her) to your care….” The vow that follows remains unchanged, spelling out the parents’ responsibility, relying upon divine grace to set before him a godly example, to pray with and for him, to teach him the doctrines of our religion, and to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

I have already seen some discussion of this overture online, and the views have been mixed. Some like the change. Some like the change but wish that the language were more eloquent, and some don’t like the change at all. I remain somewhat at sea with regard to this overture. I admit to being uncomfortable with the “dedicate” language, but I am also not particularly happy with the proposed change. After some thought, and a reconsideration of the vows as a whole, my preference would be as follows. The second vow reads: “Do you claim God’s covenant promises in (his) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his) salvation, as you do for your own?” It seems to me that this vow sets the stage for the third vow, and the proposed change is really a repetition of the second vow. On the other hand, the language of dedication appears to me to be unnecessary, so that the third vow, uttered in the context of the first and second vows (the second vow particularly) should simply eliminate the first clause, and read: “Do you now promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

I suspect that many will not like my proposal any better than they like the one in this overture. Some may like it even less. But as I say, I am still somewhat uncertain in my own mind, and I look forward to hearing the debate at General Assembly. Perhaps more clarity will come from an abundance of counselors.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Concerns About a “Recreations Clause” Study Committee

A number of years ago, I was in a presbytery meeting in which a young man was being examined for ordination. He was asked if he had any stated differences with the Westminster Standards. He said that he did, and referred to Larger Catechism 109 (dealing with images of God). He thought that the prohibition of images of Jesus, and the prohibition of mental images went beyond the Scriptures. He was asked if he had ever read anything defending the catechism’s position. He said he had not, and that he had no intention of doing so unless the presbytery required him to. He thought the catechism’s position sufficiently wrong on the face of it that he didn’t need to read anything defending it. The presbytery approved his stated difference as an allowable exception and proceeded to ordain him.

Though it deals with a different topic, I think the Sabbath “recreations” clause faces the same problem as the “images of Jesus” material in LC 109. We live in a culture in which the idea of blue laws, particularly dealing with Sunday commerce and recreation, has been under attack for decades. Perhaps most of those now coming for ordination in the PCA have been raised in a culture in which recreation on Sunday has been taken for granted. A quick trip to the store; local restaurant for lunch after church (after all, they offer a 15% discount for those who bring in their church bulletins); napping in front of the television playing the NFL game in the fall and winter. Further, they have grown up in a theological culture which is not much different. Most of evangelicalism in the United States is at best apathetic about the Sabbath. Most evangelicalism has been influenced by dispensationalism, which is more or less anti-Sabbatarian. Further, as far as I can tell, the seminaries training our candidates by and large do not require of their students any careful study of such issues.
So our civil culture and our theological culture alike lean against prohibiting “recreations” on the Sabbath. Then, we are presented the Dickensian bogeyman of the poor children of Sabbatarians, forced to sit in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs all Sunday afternoon, dressed in their Sunday-best, while their grim-faced father reads to them the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles.

In that context, it is difficult for the view of the Westminster standards to get a fair hearing. And given the discussion I have seen about Sabbath observance over the years, those in favor of removing the “recreations” clauses have usually not bothered to consider that maybe “recreations” meant something different four centuries ago than it does today. In other words, insofar as they have studied the issue, they have done so in a historically insensitive fashion. Thus, my fear is that a study committee may well come back with a report and a recommendation more influenced by our current cultural and theological climate than by a serious consideration of the biblical material and its theological implications.

Suppose, though, that the study committee brings back a strong report recommending that we preserve the present language of the standards. My fear is that it will have as much effect on the views and practices of men in the denomination as did the Federal Vision study committee report from a few years ago: that is, almost none.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Overtures 2 and 9: The “Recreations” Clauses. North Texas and Tennessee Valley Presbyteries

At several points in the doctrinal standards of the PCA (the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) reference is made to prohibiting “recreations” on the Lord’s Day. The specific sections are: WCF 21.8; LC 117, 119, SC 60, 61. In every case the full phrase is “worldly employments and recreations.”

There are many men in the PCA who object to this language, perhaps thinking that it says more on the issue than the Scriptures themselves say, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence (see final paragraph below). Presbyteries in the PCA have regularly ordained men who hold that some recreations are allowable on the Lord’s Day. These overtures call for the formation of a study committee to determine whether the Westminster doctrine is indeed what Scripture teaches. The overtures seem to presume that it is not, because they provide “corrected” language as an appendix to the overture.

The only difference between the overtures is that Tennessee Valley Presbytery appends a short paper (about 8-10 pp double-spaced) defending the removal of the “recreations” clauses. Here is not the place to go into the various objections that men have with regard to the “recreations.” But based on my own experience in presbytery, many men appear not to have studied the question carefully. They simply object to what they think the Westminster Standards might be saying.

Insofar as a study committee is concerned, I have no objection to the idea. In fact, if the study committee does its job properly it would at least clarify the issue at the heart of this discussion. That issue is, “What do the Standards mean by ‘recreations’”? Most people probably think that the Standards mean the same thing we do by “recreations.” But that strikes me as very unlikely. Language changes over time and historical contexts change over time. Thus we need to read old literature with careful attention to the meaning that words had at the time the document was written. “Prevent” in the KJV does not mean the same thing as “prevent” in the NASB. Even a single term, used in different contexts, can have very different meanings. I remember a lifetime ago filing a complaint against a particular action of the session of the church I was attending. A number of people in the congregation were offended because I dared to complain about the session. They understood “complaint” in its ordinary colloquial sense. But I used it in its technical legal sense. The failure to understand the difference caused offense.

The main problem that I have with these overtures is not the proposal of a study committee, but rather the way the overtures already weigh the results of the study committee in favor of the removal of the clauses.

I will come back and visit this again in another post.

(“Good and necessary consequence” is a phrase commonly used in theological discussion which means that the particular doctrine may not be explicitly stated in the Bible, but nonetheless is taught by the Bible based on fair and right conclusions from what the Bible does explicitly state. So, for example, the church holds the doctrine of the Trinity, though there is no verse in the Bible that says that God is triune. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed by good and necessary consequence from a comparison of Scripture with Scripture.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Overture 1: Pacific Northwest Presbytery

In Presbyterian government, there are two possible subsets of the particular court of the church (session, presbytery, General Assembly). The first is a committee. The committee can “examine, consider, and report” to the court on any issue assigned to it. But the committee cannot make any judgment on the matter. That judgment is left to the court. The second subset is a commission. “A commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it” (BCO 15-1). In other words, the commission acts in place of the court. The one exception to this rule is the judicial commission. A judicial commission can be assigned a case (if the court doesn't want to deal with it directly). When the judicial commission completes its work, it submits its record of the case and its judgment to the court. At this point, the court can either approve or disapprove the judgment of the commission.

In the overture from PNWP, they propose a third option, which would allow the commission the final say. The presbytery would assign the case to the commission with the understanding that the judgment of the case rendered by the commission will be the judgment of the presbytery. So in judicial cases, there would be three options: 1) the presbytery could try the case with the presbytery as a whole; 2) the presbytery could assign the case to a commission, with presbytery rendering the final approval on the judgment; or 3) the presbytery could allow the commission the final say from the beginning, without any final approval by the presbytery as a whole.

The rationale for this third option is that the presbytery as a whole might not have sufficient knowledge of the case to vote intelligently in approving or disapproving the judgment of the commission. It would also provide for a quicker decision on the case, since the judgment would not have to wait until the next meeting of presbytery to go into effect.

This revision of the BCO was first proposed by another presbytery last year, but it was sent back for further perfection. There is admittedly a certain attractiveness to the overture, particularly in the desire to streamline the process. It also recognizes that the presbytery often votes to approve the judgment of the commission on the basis of the presbytery simply trusting that the commission did its work properly.

However, this strikes me as being essentially the same rationale that provided the PCA with its current Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly. While that seemed good at the time, there has developed a great deal of discomfort with the way it has worked out in the long run. As a result, my own sense is that such a change is unnecessary. Rather, there ought simply to be an understanding that the requirements that the BCO already puts upon a judicial commission should always be followed. As the BCO currently reads, “a commission shall keep a full record of its proceedings, which shall be submitted to the court appointing it” (emphasis added). That record should then be made available to the presbytery as a whole in a timely manner, so that presbyters have sufficient time to review the record of the case. That way, the presbytery will be able to vote approve/disapprove in an intelligent fashion.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Overtures to the 2015 PCA General Assembly

First, a quick explanation for those who don’t know anything about the government of the PCA. The PCA is a connectional denomination, which means that the various churches that make up the denomination are considered to be connected to one another; not separate and distinct entities. The denomination has three levels of government: 1) the session, which is the governing body of the local church, made up of ruling elders (REs) and teaching elders (TEs, that is, pastors); 2) the presbytery, which is the governing body of a region of churches, made up of REs and TEs from the churches within the regional bounds of the presbytery; 3) the General Assembly, made up of REs and TEs from the churches of the denomination.

The General Assembly (GA) meets annually. This year it is meeting in Chattanooga, TN. Each year, various proposals, called overtures, come from presbyteries for the GA to consider and act on. Since the denomination is connectional, the decisions made by the GA are binding on the presbyteries and the churches. Some years, many overtures come before the GA. This year there are ten overtures, plus one that was submitted last year, but was returned for further study.

Three of the ten overtures have to do with what I call “housekeeping.” Palmetto Presbytery (the second-largest presbytery in the denomination) is proposing to divide into three smaller presbyteries. Southwest Florida and Sun Coast Florida are proposing to redraw the boundaries of the presbyteries, so that some churches will move from one presbytery to another. I don’t expect any opposition to these changes.

A fourth overture is seeking to memorialize the work of John Wayne King, who spent much of his career doing Bible translation in Malaysia. Mr. King died last year. I don’t expect any opposition to this overture either, though it does not appear to be something that is done frequently.

The other overtures are more substantive. I will summarize them here, then deal with them in more detailed fashion in coming posts. North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbyteries have overtured the GA to establish a study committee to change the language in the Westminster Confession and catechisms in regard to the idea of recreation on the Sabbath. I will have more to say about this, but I would not be surprised if the GA approved the study committee.

Pacific Northwest Presbytery is seeking some changes in the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) with regard to how presbyteries may deal with a judicial case. Gulf Coast Presbytery is seeking to change the language in the vows that parents take when they present their children for baptism, since the language in one of the vows seems more Baptistic than Presbyterian. Tidewater Presbytery is seeking to change the language in the BCO regarding ministers and other church officers who are currently without call (that is, a minister who is currently not serving in any ministerial capacity). This one strikes me as interesting due to the way the overture is structured. The session of New Hope PCA in Fairfax, VA has presented an overture that seeks to require an accused church officer to testify in a judicial case. This is a case in which church law would differ from civil law. This is also an interesting overture, and I’ll be back to review it. Finally, the overture from last year from Potomac Presbytery proposes that a provisional presbytery be created for Paraguay, with a view toward establishing a Presbyterian denomination in that country.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The State of the PCA

A post with this title by Bryan Chapell ( appeared earlier this week. A response a couple of day later appeared from Rick Phillips ( So I figured I’d add my two cents worth.

First, where I’m coming from. I have served the entirety of my ministry in the PCA in Calvary Presbytery, which is probably notorious as one of the more conservative presbyteries in the denomination. I am not widely traveled in PCA circles, unlike both Bryan and Rick. I teach at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary, which at least some folks in the PCA have never heard of, and some wish they hadn't. I attend GA sporadically, though I have served three years on the Review of Presbytery Records Committee. So my perspective is parochial, but informed by a certain level of awareness of what’s going on the denomination at large.

First, I think Rick got a lot right in his response to Bryan. I would fall into the “traditionalist” group that Dr. Chapell identified, but I don’t recognize myself in his description. In fact, I was shocked by how far off his description was. I thought he knew his denomination better than that. His statement identifying Colson, Falwell, Robertson, and other such as being the heroes of the over-50 crowd couldn't be wider of the mark. There are no doubt those in the denomination who looked to those men as Christian leaders thirty years ago, but even then, they would not necessarily have considered them heroes or even good guides on how best the church should function. I appreciate some of the things that Al Mohler and Russell Moore have to say, and I’m thankful to God for their work, but I wouldn't want either one of them in my presbytery.

Further, his characterization of the progressive churches as the ones that are growing, and the churches of the others (traditionalists and neutrals) as not is unkind as well as inaccurate. Certainly there are churches in all three groups that are growing, and there are churches in all three groups that are not. There are also many PCA churches that are located in rural areas with small populations where much growth will not happen, no matter how “progressive” the church might be.

I could go on in this vein, but Dr. Phillips has already dealt with much of it. Instead I want to focus on one statement that Dr. Chapell made, and one point that neither he nor Dr. Phillips addressed. Dr. Chapell made the comment early on that the progressives “are increasingly concerned that the church cannot move forward without controversy.” It may come as a surprise to Dr. Chapell and the “progressives,” but the church has never moved forward without controversy. There were the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early church. There was the iconoclastic controversy of the medieval church. There were generations of controversy leading up to the big controversy of the Reformation. There was the Synod of Dordt. There was the Westminster Assembly. There were the Old Side-New Side and Old School-New School controversies. Why should we think that in our church in our generation the church should move forward without controversy? I don’t like controversy. I fear those who do. But iron sharpens iron, and that means disagreement. If those in the PCA are unwilling to engage with those in the denomination with whom they disagree, there is no hope for the long-term viability of the denomination. But if we’re going to disagree with one another, we need to know those with whom we disagree better than Dr. Chapell seems to.

Finally, there is an issue that neither Dr. Chapell nor Dr. Phillips addressed. That is the ministry and outreach of the PCA to minorities. Now I know that some of my African-American and Hispanic brothers think that there is too little of this going on. I understand their concern, and I sympathize with them. But I would also like to encourage them. It may not seem like much now, but given where the PCA started, and the fact that the PCA has only been round for a little over forty years, the PCA has actually made significant progress in these areas. Yes, it needs to make more. But that will only come by patient sowing and watering. There are increasing numbers of church plants and outreaches by PCA ministers and churches to minority communities. My generation (I am 61) will not see much fruit from these works. There is too much baggage that needs to be cleared out. But the next generation will see more, and hopefully the following generation even more. But we do well to remember Paul’s admonition, "And let us not grow weary of doing good. for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up" (Gal 6:9)

In short, the PCA can have a bright future, but it will take more getting to know one another, and what others really think and are committed to, and willingness to engage in some controversy when necessary.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Sin of Ham

This comes initially from one of those pointless Facebook debates that I almost got into a few months ago, from which I was delivered at the last moment by remembering that it was not my circus, and they were not my monkeys. A friend of a friend was aghast that I thought Augustine was a true Christian. His rationale was that Augustine held to a number of aberrant doctrines that would certainly have kept him from being approved by any PCA presbytery. In spite of that, I continue to believe that Augustine was a truly converted man.

How, then, do I get from Augustine to the sin of Ham? First, I want my redemptive-historical brothers to know that I am aware of all the “Noah as the new Adam” material in Genesis 9. I am also aware that Christ is the true Noah, who gives us rest from the works of our hands (Gen 5:29). But if that’s all you see in the passage, you need to look closer. The passage is one of those cryptic passages that occur often in the Old Testament. A consulting of any commentary will show a number of different views of what transpired following Noah’s drunkenness. I won’t review them here, simply because I think the sin of Ham is fairly obvious, and that there is a real lesson for us here. Ham’s sin was in his humiliation of his father by calling unnecessary attention to his father’s sin, in fact mocking his father. The contrast in Gen 9:20-24 is between the behavior of Ham and that of his brothers. Unlike Ham, Shem and Japheth covered their father’s nakedness, covering his sin, as it were.

I think there is in this a lesson for us in how we are to treat our fathers; not only our biological fathers, but our fathers in the faith. It is significant that after Genesis 9, Noah’s transgression is never again mentioned. In fact, in the seven subsequent references to Noah in the Bible, one is simply his part in the genealogy of 1 Chronicles (1:4), three refer to the judgment of the flood (Is 54:9; 1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5); and three refer to Noah as an example of faith (Ezek 14:14, 20; Heb 11:7). The Bible does not hide Noah’s sin, but neither does it elevate that sin over his faith. David is treated similarly. Yes, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah is dealt with in 2 Sam 11-12, and the consequences of that sin color the remainder of David’s life. But later references to David emphasize his faith, and he became the standard to which later kings of Israel were compared.

We are faced with two temptations in dealing with our fathers, whether our biological fathers or our fathers in the faith. Particularly regarding our fathers in the faith, the one temptation is hagiography, treating them as if they were perfect and had no sin. The other is to focus in their sin alone, as if those shortcomings defined the man. I've been guilty of both of these, and no doubt those temptations are constant.

But in some quarters, I see a great deal of the attitude of Ham. Our fathers failed in some particular area. Our fathers committed, regularly and often, and apparently without pangs of conscience, sins that seem great and heinous to us. They were insensitive to things that we are exquisitely sensitive to. So we deride them, we mock them, and we hold them up for ridicule. They can be safely ignored, because of their great sins. We can toss Augustine onto the ash heap of history because of his aberrant doctrines. He obviously has nothing to teach us.

As I've gotten older, I think I have developed a greater sympathy for the sins and shortcomings of my fathers in the faith. I hope that I have moved from the sin of Ham to the mercy and kindness of Shem and Japheth. We don’t want to pretend that our fathers had no sin. But we should recall that their sin was not the defining element of their lives. Rather, it is their faith and their godliness, however frail, that still speak to us. I hope that our children, our successors in the faith, will treat us more kindly than we have sometimes treated our predecessors: that they might focus on our faith and not on the sin that will seem so obvious to them, but to which we are, apparently, blind.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Context and Structure of Psalm 90

The title tells us that the psalm is a prayer of Moses, making it probably the oldest psalm in the book. But it gives us no direct evidence of when in the life of Moses it was written. But the content itself and the structure of the psalm can lead us to some consideration of a good possibility for the context. This in turn can assist us in our reflections on the psalm, and its application for us.

The psalm breaks down into three sections: 1-2, 3-11, and 12-17. The first section proclaims God and his eternality. The second section portrays man in his brevity. The third section is a prayer that springs from the first two sections, emphasizing a desire for God himself to establish our work.

A further consideration of the second section is perhaps the key to the entire psalm. It focuses on God’s wrath against our sin as the cause for the brevity of our lives. We see this especially in vss 7-9. Verse 7 is particularly acute here, as it is a little self-contained chiasm (an X-structure). In this case, the English translations enable the reader to see the chiasm that is in the original.
For we are brought to an enda by your anger;b
And by your wrathb1 we are dismayed.a1
The center of the chiasm is the wrath/anger of God, and the following verse emphasizes our sins as the cause of the wrath. The section ends with a restatement of the incomprehensible wrath of God.

In reflecting particularly on this center section, it appears to me likely that this prayer came out of the final months of Moses’ life. He has watched an entire generation of God’s people be swept away in his wrath due to their rebellion, and refusal to enter the land of promise. Given the count of the two censuses in Numbers (chs 1 and 26), it is likely that Moses oversaw the death of some one to two million people during that forty years. On average that would be seventy to one hundred forty people dying per day; day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. No wonder Moses speaks in terms of them being swept away like a flood (vs 5: the word that the ESV translates as “sweep them away” occurs only here in the Old Testament, so the meaning is not precisely clear; it may mean simply “to bring to an end”).

That image of an entire generation brought to an end by the wrath of God anchors the psalm. It is from that context that Moses’ plea comes as the psalm ends. It is not just the generation lost in the wilderness, but every generation of God’s people that comes on the scene, and then just as quickly is swept away. Thus we are to number our days, to count them carefully, to take the brevity of our lives seriously, and pray that God would establish the work of our hands. Again here, I imagine Moses on the plains of Moab now thinking about the generation to come, not the generation gone. His plea is that the days of affliction and evil might not continue in the next generation, but rather that they might be days of gladness; that God might so work among his people that the labor of their years would stand. May that be our prayer as well.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3, Part 2

First, a note on the translation of the Septuagint. The last word in the verse, translated as “faithfulness” in many translations, is ‘emunah. It is possible that the Septuagint translator was reading a text that read hamonah, which would be translated as “wealth” or “riches.” The two Hebrew words would sound very much alike. Hence, if a scribe was copying a text being read to him, he might write hamonah instead of ‘emunah. That is simply a guess, as we have no Hebrew manuscripts that read hamonah in this place. But that would explain the unusual translation.

As for the English versions, a number of possibilities exist. Most translations take the final word as the object of the verb, hence the translations “cultivate faithfulness,” “feed on faithfulness,” etc. Other translations take the final noun as functioning as an adverb, hence the translations “live securely” or the KJV “verily thou shalt be fed.”

The adverbial view, while possible, strikes me as unlikely for two main reasons. First, the noun itself is only used adverbially in one case: Psalm 119:75, which says, “in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (ESV) or “you have afflicted me fairly” (CSB). In all other cases, it functions as an ordinary noun. Thus it seems to me to be stretching a point to render the noun as an adverb here in Psalm 37:3.
The other reason for rejecting the adverbial use is the structure of the verse itself. In the verse, there are four imperatives, each followed by a noun. In the first three cases, the noun is clearly the object of the verb: “trust in the Lord,” “and do good,” “dwell in the land.” As a result, it seems most likely that the final clause is also an imperative followed by a direct object: “shepherd/graze/befriend faithfulness.”

The question then becomes, what does that final clause mean? My sense is that it closely parallels the clause “and do good.” The command concerns our action. As we are to make goodness our aim, so we are also to make faithfulness our aim. The verse begins and ends with trust/faithfulness. Trust in the Lord … shepherd faithfulness. It is not a general faithfulness that we are to shepherd/cultivate/befriend, that is, faithfulness to our fellow man (though that is certainly not out of the picture), but rather faithfulness to God. If we look at the next verse, we read “take delight in the Lord.” This helps to clarify the sense of the last clause of verse 3. As difficult as a comparison of English versions may make the verse appear, it is really not too difficult, once the interpreter looks more closely at the context.

As I frequently tell my Hebrew students: Pay attention to the context. The meaning comes not from single words considered in isolation, but in their larger connections in the context.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3

Last Sunday morning in Sunday school, one of the verses we looked at was Psalm 37:3. I had a copy of the ESV, and my wife had a copy of the NASB. She noted that the second half of the verse said, “Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.” I looked at the ESV, which says, “Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” Since the two translations are very different, she asked me what explained the difference. Off the top of my head, I suggested that there are two verbs in Hebrew, spelled exactly alike, but with very different meanings. Checking it that afternoon, I discovered that my hunch was correct. Ordinarily, the context will be sufficient to determine which of the two verbs is intended. But in Psalm 37:3, the context is sufficiently vague that it is not clear at first which verb might be intended.

The NASB translators chose one verb, which ordinarily means to tend, shepherd, or graze. Hence, the NASB translators took an extended sense of that verb and rendered it “cultivate.” This is the rendering also suggested by the nineteenth century German scholar Franz Delitzsch. The ESV translators chose the other verb, which means to have dealings with, thus the somewhat extended sense of “befriend.”

Then I got curious and looked at other translations. What I found is that there is no consensus on the translation of the passage. Usually in this kind of case, there will be a certain unity among translations, so that one choice will be a clear favorite. No so with Psalm 37:3. The following are the various translations that I have pulled up in my Bible study software (in addition to the ESV and NASB):

Common English Bible: Live in the land and farm faithfulness.
Christian Standard Bible: Dwell in the land and live securely.
God’s Word to the Nations: Live in the land, and practice being faithful.
KJV: So shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
NIV: Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
New Jerusalem Bible: Make your home in the land and live secure.
NKJV: Dwell in the land and feed on his faithfulness.
New Living Translation: Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
New RSV: So you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

Then, just out of further curiosity, I looked at the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). It says, “And inhabit the land, and you shall shepherd its riches.”

All of these versions, except the Septuagint, can be defended as acceptable translations of the Hebrew text. But, as you might suspect, some are better than others. It is the better ones that point to the meaning of this apparently simple verse that hides a real complexity beneath its surface.
I’ll deal with that discussion in the next post.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Song of Songs and the Matter of Context

Let us suppose that the Song of Songs was never included in Scripture, that there were only 65 books in the canon. Let us further suppose that a discovery was made in modern Jordan in the early 1950s, in which a number of scrolls were found. Among them was a collection, or what appeared to be a collection, of occasionally erotic poetry. We could tell from the language that it was written in, and from some of the names used, that it was of late Israelite or early Jewish origin. 

We would then begin to compare it to other ancient literature, because that is what we would have; simply ancient literature. But the essential question would be, to what do we compare it? We might compare it to collections of Syrian wedding festival songs, just because of location, and the occasionally erotic character of the poems. But there is nothing specific about the material that says wedding. Or we might compare it to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz, though there is nothing in the collection that particularly says a hymn to a god. Or we might compare it to collections of ancient Egyptian love poetry, because the content of the collection we've found is very close to the content of some of those Egyptian poems. But we would do those comparisons because the collection we found would not come with a particular context, and if we were to rightly understand it, we would need to find the proper context for interpreting it.

But the situation with the Song of Songs is completely different from that of our hypothetical find. The Song of Songs comes to us with a known and certain context. It is part of the collection of sacred scripture. Thus, it is sacred scripture itself that should provide the context for our interpretation of the Song. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Syrian wedding festivals. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz or Egyptian love poetry. In fact, what we do know is that to compare the Song to those literatures is to take the Song out of the context which has been provided for it and put it in a new and alien context. To take the Song away from the context of the larger body of scripture and to put it in the context of the literature of some other nation from some other time is almost to guarantee that we will misinterpret the Song, because we will have removed the Song from its proper interpretive context.

In some sense, it doesn't matter where in the canon of scripture the Song is found. In our English versions, it is part of the poetic books. In Hebrew texts it is part of the collection called the Writings. But regardless of where it is put, the larger context for the interpretation of the Song has already been given us. It is part of the sacred scriptures, and those scriptures give us the framework for interpreting the Song. If we take a statement about bases out of a chemistry textbook, and put it in a baseball book, we will surely misinterpret it. In like manner, if we take the Song out of the context of Scripture and put it in some other ancient literary context, we will surely misinterpret it, because we have put it in the wrong context.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Song of Songs and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

For historical-grammatical interpretation (HGI) part pf the “historical” aspect is to seek to understand the biblical text in its historical context. That means looking at the biblical material in the larger context of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature. Such an investigation affects most books of the Old Testament, but particularly the Song of Songs. The current consensus about the book, if there is one, is that the Song of Songs has a great deal in common with ancient Egyptian love poetry. Thus a common treatment of the Song today is to deal with it as a collection of Israelite love poetry, similar in vein and in purpose to the love poetry of ancient Egypt. This view is presented, for example, by Michael V. Fox (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox) in his monograph The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs.

But those who have spent some time in the literature about the Song have heard this before. In the 1860s and 1870s, Ernest Renan and J. G. Wetstein, both specialists, in their own way, in Near Eastern literature and culture, proposed (Renan first, in the 1860s, Wetstein a decade or so later) that the Song had a great deal in common with the songs that were used in Syrian culture to celebrate marriage, over the course of a seven-day wedding festival. Thus, in the generation following, many commentators found strong parallels between the Song and these Syrian compositions, attempting to find the seven-day cycle in the arrangement of the Song, for example. But time passed, and the more closely scholars looked at the evidence, the less they were convinced.

In the 1920s, T. J. Meek of the University of Chicago discovered strong similarities between the Song and Akkadian (Akkadian was the language of ancient Assyria and Babylon) hymns composed in praise of the god Tammuz. He proposed that the Song was an adaptation of Akkadian hymnody to Tammuz appropriated for the worship of Yahweh. Again, a number of commentators over the next couple of decades reflect this view. But once again, over time the strength of the evidence waned, and scholars moved away from that view as well.

As noted, the current view is that of Fox, reflected in a number of commentaries. But Fox’s book was published in 1985, and it is now probably approaching its sell-by date. So the reader begins to wonder where the next set of ANE literary connections with the Song will be found.

Meanwhile, some people still hold that the Song is a drama, although there is little agreement on how many characters there are, or how to divide the Song into acts and scenes. In general, there is little agreement as to the outline of the Song. I have before me four current study Bibles. Now the advantage of study Bibles is that they try to present something of a consensus view on all issues. The reader can decide for himself how much agreement there is in these outlines.

NKJV Study Bible
I.                   Three reflections on the wedding day (1:2-2:7)
II.                Three reflections during the courtship days (2:8-3:5)
III.             Two reflections on the wedding day (3:6-5:1)
IV.              Five reflections on adjustment to marriage (5:2-8:4)
V.                 A final reflection: a vacation in the country (8:5-14)

Reformation Study Bible
I.                   The woman’s desire for her lover (1:2-2:7)
II.                The approach of her lover (2:8-3:5)
III.             The loss of her lover (3:6-5:8)
IV.              The reunion of the lovers (5:9-8:4)
V.                 Consummation (8:5-14)

NLT Study Bible
I.                   The Woman’s predicament with Solomon (1:2-14)
II.                Their prenuptial relationship (1:15-3:5)
III.             Their wedding and consummation (3:6-5:1)
IV.              Her nightmare, separation, and searching (5:2-6:3)
V.                 Their stimulating marriage (6:4-8:10)
VI.              Free from debt, free to love (8:11-14)

ESV Study Bible
I.                   The lovers yearn for each other (1:2-2:17)
II.                The shepherdess dreams (3:1-6:3)
III.             The lovers year for each other again (6:4-8:4)
IV.              The lovers join in marriage (8:5-14)

The reader might be forgiven for thinking of the theme verse of the Book of Judges. In any case, it is not clear that a literal reading of the Song, in its ANE context, has any clear benefits over the historical allegorical/symbolic treatment.