Friday, May 28, 2010

"The Tolkien Professor"

If you like the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, then you will love this.  Corey Olsen, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, has put together a website, The Tolkien Professor, dedicated to bridging the gap between academics and general readers of Tokien's work.  He shares his insights so that everyday folks can have free access to appreciate better and understand better the stories that have fascinated generations of readers.

There are audio lectures that focus primarily on his classroom lectures on The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings (there are even helpful readings specific to the lectures), recorded "chats," and a discussion board that allows you to read and participate in discussions on specific topics.  And if you want to download the free audio and take them with you, then you can subscribe to The Tolkien Professor podcast here.

If you are interested but not sure where to begin, start with the Intro lecture "How to Read Tolkien and Why," where Olsen discusses Tolkien’s own ideas on story-telling, on how stories should be read and why they are important, which he bases primarily off of Tokien's essay "On Fairy-Stories."  And if you are looking for helpful suggestions for further reading, then simply consult the bookstore.

There is a wealth of great and helpful information at the right price; so enjoy!

[HT: James Grant]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"An Alternative Plan for PCA Renewal" from the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia (Updated)

Over at the Aquila Report, David Hall (Midway PCA in Powder Springs, GA) has posted some Questions and Answers concerning the overture of the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia for an alternative plan to the PCA Strategic Plan.  He begins with filling out some the details of what action took place in producing the overture.  He explains that the presbytery met to debate and eventually pass two overtures,
The first overture called for a ‘means of grace’ alternative to the proposed Strategic Plan; the second called for a recognition of the sufficiency of our constitution to govern offices and ordination in the church, along with a call to conform our practices to those objective standards until or unless the constitution is amended.  
From reading the Q and A, there are two things that stand out to me (besides the great content!).  First, I really appreciate the participation of the ruling elders in the presbytery.  Hall states that there were more RE's present than TE"s.  It is good to see these shepherds taking their calling seriously.  And I agree with Hall that often, the opinions and ideas expressed by the RE's provide a more accurate expression of the church than that expressed by the "professional class."  I believe this will provide the opportunity for a broader audience to take it seriously.

Secondly, I appreciate the way he describes the debate taking place irenically.  And that the intended purpose of their temperate and respectful debate is for the unity of the church and not to exasperate brothers in Christ or broaden the disjunction of those involved.  They are not merely seeking to put something forward that is the opposite of the Strategic Plan just to be opposite, in fact, he mentions places where they agree.  They are seeking to provide what they (and I) believe to be a biblical and confessional alternative for accomplishing the calling of the church in the Great Commission.

Let me close with his encouraging words, "We commend these to our church, along with our prayers for God’s blessings on our leaders, our churches, and the upcoming General Assembly. We hope many will join in such hopeful and positive sentiments."

You can read the entire Q and A here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Inextricable Relationship Between Covenant Theology and Preaching

Here are some helpful thoughts on the relationship between covenant theology and preaching.  Over at the Greenbaggins blog, insights from Hughes Oliphant Old are being provided on preaching from the history of the church.  Old says, 
If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people.
This statement is very helpful today, given the current distaste for preaching.  Many today would rather have a conversation or be lead in a discussion group, rather than have an ordained man (one approved by God-1 Thess 2.4) proclaim the truth of God in the authority of God.  Interestingly, there is currently a prominent "Reformed" theologian who has built his theological system around the notion of God as the covenant Lord, who has argued that there is no biblical defense of preaching as a monologue from a single preacher to a congregation who listen, and, therefore, preaching can come in the form of conversation or even drama.

The doctrine of the covenant, then, is inextricably related not only to preaching, but how preaching is to be accomplished.  The covenant helps us to understand that God has addressed his people and requires his people to respond.  God continues to address his people, and continues to address them through the covenant, so there continues to be a need for the covenant to be proclaimed - and that is what preaching is.  The covenant establishes the need for and provides for the right means for preaching.  We are not left to ourselves and our imaginations to try and figure out the best way for the covenant to be proclaimed and administered among God's church. 

This is not to say that God has not provided a way for the covenant to be displayed and played out before a congregation.  If drama you seek, then start practicing the sacraments.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"An Alternative Plan for PCA Renewal" from the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia

Coming from the Presbytery of Northwest Georgia of the PCA is an overture I can support.  The men of the NWGP have provided 17 points for renewal in the PCA--points that promote reformed practice in addition to Reformed theology.  Kudos to the men of the NWGP for stating such a clear, biblical and confessional response that is irenic and profitable.  There is no need to leave confessionalism behind in order to do Reformed ministry, rather, what is needed is a robust commitment and engagement in Reformed theology, piety, and practice in the life of the church in worship, nurture and missions.  We have a rich perspective--why not put it to use?  We don't need to be less or other than what we are, and how can we reproduce Reformed churches if we are less than Reformed in the process?  Our ministry should reflect the God-centered, covenantal theology of our standards,
 . . . the remedy to our denominational maladies is not the implementation of what some see as a fairly complex, mildly therapeutic, sociologically savvy strategic vision. Rather, what the PCA needs - in fact, what every NAPARC denomination always needs - is a clear, uncompromising call to biblical and confessional renewal, renewal that is on God’s terms, not man’s.
The preface is helpful in explaining that those who disagree with the Strategic Plan do not disagree because they are not in favor of missions, but because they believe that God has promised to bless certain means, so the ministry of the church should be focused on those things, and not on things that God has not promised to bless,
Many believe that the current problems in the PCA have less to do with cultural irrelevancy and insensitivity, and more to do with a lack of confidence in the sufficient, efficacious means that God Himself has promised to bless for the health and extension of His kingdom. Perhaps we - the PCA - should examine ourselves, and ask ourselves some searching, even convicting questions - questions that may help us to recognize our current problems: Why the upturn in topical, loosely textual, media/story driven sermons? Why the downturn in exegetical, Christ-centered, lectio-continua Bible preaching? Why the upturn in focus upon missional broadness, social programs and eco-gospel ministry? Why the downturn in substantial prayer in public worship? Why the absence of congregational prayer meetings? Why the upturn in focus upon women possessing greater roles in worship and denominational leadership (“direction and development”)? Why the downturn in sessions boldly calling men to lead their families and Christ’s Church (i.e. public worship, family worship)? The main goal or plan of the PCA for the next forty years should be a courageous, God-centered, joyfully reverent return to Reformed Faith and practice, as set forth in the Westminster Standards and her sister confessions (e.g. The Three Forms of Unity). This is a call to renewal that we should all be able to get behind.
 It is not new in the tradition of American Presbyterianism to want to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy, a la, the "doctrine divides but ministry unites" chorus of the new school/old school debates of the nineteenth century, so no one should be surprised to see this manifested again.  But it is because this is not new that we must understand that it apparently is not going away and there is once again a need for a loving, irenic and faithful response.

You can read the entire overture here.  Let me add my "Amen!"

Do You Need Knowledge Or Understanding In Your Suffering?

Recently, my new office buddy Carolyn recommended a book by Dale Ralph Davis on preaching from Old Testament narrative texts.  In the second chapter, he lists nine literary features, or "quirks" as he calls them, that the interpreter needs to be able to recognize in order to get a grasp on the point of a narrative.
  1. Reticence
  2. Eavesdropping
  3. Selectivity
  4. Sarcasm
  5. Imagination
  6. Surprise
  7. Emphasis (Repetition)
  8. Intensity
  9. Tension
In his discussion on "eavesdropping," he notes that often the biblical author will provide insight to the reader that the protagonist in the narrative does not know.  The reader, in essence, gets to know what is going on behind the scenes as we watch the protagonist try to figure things out on his own.   

One of the examples he provides to show this literary feature is in Job.  As many know, Job was put through a great trial and suffered greatly in the process.  And this trial was not because of blind fate, bad luck or even Satanic cause--it was God who providentially brought this trial on Job.  In Job 1.8, it is Yahweh who brings Job up to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job . . ."  Yahweh initiates but also limits the trial (see 1.12).  Prior to Job's trial and suffering, there is a meeting that takes place between God and Satan--a meeting that the reader knows about, but Job doesn't.  We are given insight into Job's situation that Job himself does not have, "[Job] goes through his whole struggle in the dark, knowing nothing of the accuser who ridicules his loyalty nor of the fact that Yahweh has steadfastly been for him," (p. 13).

This perspective made me think about Job's suffering in a new light.  Job does not know the details surrounding his trial and suffering--and this lack of knowledge is what clouds his faith.  He never loses faith--but he does lose his patience, even to the point of demanding that God answer him (Job 31.35).  And throughout, it is clear from Job's words that he is trying to recount his actions to find where he went astray--actions that would warrant such judgment from God.  And he cannot put his finger on it.  He just doesn't know why.

And this is telling for us.  When we find ourselves in trial and affliction, it is quite easy for us to grow impatient in the trial--especially with God himself.  And this is quite natural--for trial and affliction are not easy or fun.  They are difficult and they can cloud our spiritual vision so that we look with our physical eyes rather than our eyes of faith.  And when we do this, we set ourselves up for further suffering--for our physical eyes only see what seems to be causing the pain.  We look to know the details of why we are suffering by looking only at the realities of this world.

During these seasons of trial, we don't need knowledge--we need understanding.  We need to look with the eyes of faith at the other worldly realities that are going on behind the scenes.  Job could not see them--but God shows them to us.  And he does so because these same other worldly realities are still at work.  We get to peer behind the scenes with Job so that we come to understand what is going on behind the scenes in our own suffering. 

And the reality is this:  God is providentially testing his people, this testing takes place in the midst of spiritual warfare wrestling not "against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places," (Eph 6.12).  And this is not to harm us but to strengthen us, to help us peer behind the veil of our own trials with eyes of spiritual understanding.  We don't need specific details, we need spiritual understanding that comes from peace with God, knowing that trials and suffering bring us to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and that we may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible we may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3.10-11).

The peace of God we need comes to us in the gospel.  That silly message that tells us that in Christ, life is found through death, that exaltation comes through humiliation, that peace in suffering is found not in knowledge but in understanding--gospel understanding.

Are you feeling wearied in your trials and suffering?  Do you find yourself becoming impatient with God and demanding him to answer you?  Then step back, think through the gospel afresh.  God has provided everything you need for this affliction, so stop frustrating yourself by looking for what he has not told you and trust the behind-the-scenes-insight he has shown you.  Find yourself in your afflicted state united to Christ with whom you suffer, be comforted in his resurrection that is yours by faith, and then rejoice in the Lord who is at hand so that you may not "be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus," (Phil. 4.6-7).  There is no answer, there is no help, there is no comfort, there is no hope apart from your life being hidden in Christ.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why Has Guilt, Grace, Gratitude Become Guilt, Guilt, Guilt?

Many are aware that the historic way of breaking down the Heidelberg Catechism, even the Christian life itself, can be summarized with the three-fold description Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.  But for some reason today, it seems like I talk to a lot of people who do not experience this three-fold description, but rather, their experience of the Christian life seems to be Guilt, Guilt, Guilt.  Understanding our guilt before God is certainly necessary and a good thing, but it's not everything.  In fact, guilt is supposed to take us to the cross where we find the objective work of Christ, and then subjectively embrace it by faith so that by grace, we can rejoice in salvation and walk in the newness of life--guilt leads to grace and grace leads to gratitude.

With this purpose for guilt, and with such amazing grace, why is it that so many Christians feel so guilty all the time?

At his blog today, Kevin DeYoung asks this question and provides four basic reasons why he thinks so many Christians feel so guilty:
  1. We don’t fully embrace the good news of the gospel.
  2. Christians tend to motivate each other by guilt rather than grace.
  3. Most of our low-level guilt falls under the ambiguous category of “not doing enough.”
  4. When we are truly guilty of sin it is imperative we repent and receive God’s mercy.
DeYoung believes that this constant guilt is dangerous because it can harden one's conscience and even lead a person to ignore his conscience.  This constant feeling of guilt, which can sear the conscience, can lead people to ignore actual sin from which they need to repent, and hence, miss out on the salve of the gospel, which is what they need.

DeYoung believes that grace is the answer:
 . . . the best preaching ought to make sincere Christians see more of Christ and experience more of his grace.  Deeper grace will produce better gratitude, which means less guilt. And that’s a good thing all the way around.
Yes it is, but why limit the prescription just to preaching?  Why not offer all the means of grace that Christ affords his church?  Yes, preaching is important, necessary and foundational, but seeing in communion what is spoken in a sermon is also important, necessary and beneficial.

Do you seem to feel guilty all the time?  The bread that came down from heaven makes himself available for you to feed upon him, and hence, be invigorated by the heavenly realities in him.  Maybe you're not eating enough.

If It Doesn't Walk Like A Duck (Yada, Yada, Yada) It's Not Presbyterian

In an earlier post I raise the point that the new Strategic Plan of the PCA is not Presbyterian.  William Schweitzer agrees.

The Liturgy of "Contemporvant" Worship

This is pretty funny--but also pretty pathetic since it's so on target.

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

[HT: James Grant]

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"'True' and 'Truth' in the Johannine Writings" - Geerhardus Vos

This morning in the men's Bible study at Pasha Coffee & Tea, the men were discussing 1 John 218-27 with particular emphasis on John's use of "true," "truth," "anointing," and "abiding in you."  In all these things, John seems to equate these words together with the Anointed One himself, Jesus Christ.  So what does all this mean?

Well, a helpful place to look is Geerhardus Vos' article "'True' and 'Truth' in the Johannine Writings."  In that article, Vos helps to show that John uses these terms in relation to Jesus and who he is as the eschatological savior come from heaven to earth and as such, his words share in his "otherworldliness."  The truth of Christ and his words has more to do, then, than just speaking of their trustworthy character; his words are heavenly and come from heaven as he did.  As such, Christ abides in his people through his truth--truth that is bound up with his word, the Bible.  Here are a few snippets:
When Jesus is called “the truth,” it would be a rash judgment to assert that this can mean nothing else than that His words are the supreme, incarnate veracity. The noun can just as well mean, and undoubtedly, in view of the usage of the adjective, sometimes does mean, that the supreme reality of the things that compose His character is incarnate in Him. The fulness of “truth,” which, side by side with “grace,” resides in the Only Begotten, must mean far more than the reliability pertaining to His words;
It cannot be otherwise than that the words of Him who is by nature and origin the “veritable” One should partake of the same character precisely because they are His. His kingdom is not of this world (but of the heavenly world), and for this very reason He came from the higher into the lower world that He should bear witness unto “the truth,” and that every one that is of “the truth” should hear His voice (18:37).

He is simply “not of this world.” And what is true of Jesus is, of course, on the principles of the Johannine teaching throughout, in the statements both of Jesus and of the Evangelist, applicable to the disciples, for in no document is the identification of Jesus with the believer more emphatically affirmed.

What is practically involved is the principle of ultimate spiritual value in regard to destiny. The practical name for this is the principle of “otherworldliness.”

The life of faith is not just about trusting Christ's word, though it does include that, but it is about trusting that his word is at work within us binding us to him so that we understand that the heavenly life of Christ has intruded in us now and is working within us until we enter in to the full consummation of our heavenly inheritance.  The truth of Christ shares in Christ's nature and therefore binds us to him, which comes to us in the form of an anointing.  So, as the anointing you received from him abides in you . . .and is true . . . abide in him (1 John 2.27).

You can find the article in Vos' Shorter Writings, or read the entire article online for free here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Alternative (That's Not New) PCA Strategic Plan

Since I first introduced a couple of my concerns about the new "Strategic Plan" of the PCA, I have been planning on following up with a positive statement proposing action for the PCA but have not been able to get around to it.  Well, now I don't have to.

The Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne, pastor of Grace PCA in Douglasville, GA (just west of Atlanta) and author of John Owen on the Lord’s Supper and In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship, and who is deeply committed to the Reformation2Germany project, has offered an alternative proposal for the PCA that reflects my own thoughts and commitments and those of the congregation I serve.  He states,
What we need more than anything in the PCA is a warm, winsome, consistent, serious, joyful, positive expression of Reformed and confessional Presbyterianism that unashamedly and courageously applies the theology of our Confession to the way we worship, preach, teach, write, shepherd, discipline, serve, evangelize and plant-churches (Domestic and International).
The need in the PCA is not new "safe places," the creation of gospel eco-systems, withdrawing from those with whom we share doctrine in order to learn from and participate with those with whom we do not share doctrine, or partnering with "groups" that aren't churches.  How can a "group" accomplish the Great Commission of Matthew 28.18-20 if they can't administer the sacraments and church discipline?

No, the new alternative that the PCA needs is not new at all, but a return to biblical faithfulness.  Remember it is God who is on the mission, and he is building his church through the Christ.  And remember, this is all rooted in his plan that he and the other members of the trinity agreed upon before the foundation of the world. He covenanted, he decreed, he accomplished and is now applying what he accomplished--and he does this according to his prescribed means--what he thinks is best.  He has not done all this to then leave it up to us to fulfill what he promised to do--what he has left up to us is to do what he has promised to bless and then leave the results up to him--results he predetermined before the foundation of the world.  Trust me--none of the elect will be lost!

So what are the 17 points of his (and mine! ha!) alternative proposal that is not new since it is what God has prescribed?

1. A renewed commitment to exegetical, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Holy Spirit-filled, lectio-continua preaching.
2. A renewed commitment to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for the spiritual nourishment, health and comfort of the elect.
3. A renewed commitment to private, family and corporate prayer.
4. A renewed commitment to – and delight in – the Lord’s Day.
5. A renewed commitment to worship God according to Scripture.
6. A renewed commitment to sing the Psalms in private, family, and public worship.
7. A renewed commitment to wed our missiology to our Reformed ecclesiology.
8. A renewed commitment to Spirit-dependent, prayerful, loving, courageous evangelism.
9. A renewed commitment to biblical church discipline.
10. A renewed commitment to family worship.
11. A renewed commitment to biblical hospitality.
12. A renewed commitment to catechize our covenant children.
13. A renewed commitment to biblical masculinity and femininity.
14. A renewed commitment to shepherd the flock of God.
15. A renewed commitment to promote and defend the Reformed Confession.
16.A renewed commitment to the mortification of sin and worldliness.
17. A renewed commitment to rest by faith in Christ ALONE for salvation, without minimizing Gospel obedience.

I heartily agree with Payne's conclusion,"This vision, I believe, would unify our beloved denomination in what God Himself has clearly promised to bless," [emphasis mine].

Monday, May 3, 2010

"The Communion Feast of Peace" - Leviticus 7.11-38 & 1 Corinthians 10.16-18

Yesterday was my first official Lord's Day at Reformed Presbyterian Church, though I will not be ordained and installed until this Friday (d.v.).  One of the things I enjoy about this call is that RP practices weekly communion.  As a means of grace, the Lord's Supper is vital to the life and health of the Christian pilgrim.  As citizens of heaven who still find themselves on earth--Christian pilgrims find themselves needing nourishment and refreshment for enduring the hardships of the desert pilgrimage.  The sin of this world and the ongoing sin in the pilgrim can become a choking dust in the throat of the traveler, and as the psalmist says, the effect of this sin can make one feel like his/her "moisture is dried away."

For the church who finds herself living between God's advent in Christ and entrance into the fullness of our promised inheritance of heaven--we are like the church of the OT who found herself living between the advent of God on Mount Sinai and entrance into the promised inheritance of the land of Canaan.  To sustain his people on that journey, God provided the means of grace of the peace offering.  A meal that both portrayed and conveyed the very peace God would accomplish for them--not through the substitutionary sacrifice of an animal through the mediation of the Aaronic priesthood, but through the mediation of the priesthood of Jesus Christ who not only mediated the once for all sacrifice, but who was himself the substituionary sacrifice.

As the people would feed on the sacrifice as a portrait of the peace achieved for them by another, they simultanesouly experienced that peace when they ate by faith.  The point:  as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10.16-18,
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?
Just as they partook of the benefits of the altar, we too, partake of the benefits of Christ when we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord's Supper.  Although the Lord's Supper is a beautiful picture of the grace of the gospel, it does more than merely portray that grace--it conveys it when received by faith.

What we have in the Lord's Supper is nothing less than a communion feast of peace!  So are you feeling weakened because of the ongoing pilgrimage and struggle with sin--then get to the table and feed on your savior, so that as your moisture dries up, you may be replenished!

You can read the entire sermon here.

Presbyterian Parochialism?

What do you get when you combine the localism of Wendell Berry with the concern for the true care of souls of Martin Bucer?  You get the 19th century Presbyterian Thomas Chalmers who advocated a Reformed and Presbyterian parish ministry.  Michael Ives has put together a blog based on the parish ministry focus of Chalmers called West Port Experiment, which is named after the efforts of Chalmers in the late 1840s who, after leaving the endowments of the establishment in the Disruption of 1843, implemented a parish model of church extension and paternalistic philanthropy in one of the worst slums of industrialized Edinburgh. 

For a great little paper introducing Chalmers' parish evangelism, see Ives' paper "Parish Evangelism: Rediscovering Focus in Evangelistic & Pastoral Effort."

[HT: James Grant]

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Free CD Giveaway Over At

Over at, they are providing a free CD of Kim Riddlebarger's 16-part lecture series on Amilennialism 101 and his 32-part sermon series on the Book of Revelation--FREE.