Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shakin' Things Up Some More: Pilgrims & Pastors Is Moving!!

Earlier in the year when I changed the name of the blog, I said, "For now the url will remain what it is, but that will be changing in the near future, so stay tuned!"  Well, it's taken longer than I thought, but it's time.  And not only is there a url change, there is also a change in blog service.  Although there are many features that I enjoy about the blogger service, I have decided to utilize wordpress.com instead.  So, with that, the new url is:
Everything has been moved over, but I will also leave this site up as well.  There is still much work to do in getting the new Pilgrims & Pastors finished, but enough has been done to go ahead and announce the move.  So if you want to continue to stay up to date, you will need to change your subscription to the new blog, which you can do when you visit it and check it out.

So come check it out!

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Books (And Especially the Bible) Can Do For Us

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us…. We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904.

A reader of the whole – which is to say the only – Bible concludes, then, that Kafka evidently agreed with God.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2011 Spring Conference: "God, Horrendous Evil, and the Christian Faith"


"Nonbelievers insist that the reality of horrendous evils in the world cannot be squared with the Church's confession of a God who is both good and powerful.  The Church also confesses, in the Apostles' Creed, that Jesus "descended into Hell."  But what does the suffering and death of Jesus have to do with natural disasters, genocide, severe disorders and depression, and other horrors of human experience?  What do these things have to do with Jesus, and with the Christian lives of even those who do not suffer in these ways?  And how does the Church respond in the face of horrendous evil?  What is there to say?"

This year's Spring Conference at Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain will be dealing with these questions.

More information forthcoming!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are You Cultivating a Culture of Grace or a Culture of Law?

This past Lord's Day, my church began a Sunday school class that is on the topic of developing a culture of grace in the church.  For this class, we are utilizing Paul David Tripp's lectures Your Christian School: A Culture of Grace?.  In the first lesson, this question was asked, "Are we asking the law to do something that only grace can accomplish?"  Behind this question is the truth that the law cannot accomplish what it demands.  That is not its purpose.  But so often, this is exactly how we approach the law.  We think, "If I can just do [ a certain outward behavior] enough, even when I don't want to do it, then eventually there will be an inward positive effect."  Or, we think something like this, "If I can just do it for thirty days, then it will become a natural habit that I will do all the time.  If I can thank God enough for my difficult trials, then I will truly become thankful."  This approach to the Christian walk is a legalistic approach and it just simply won't work.

Jesus says in Luke 6.43-45 that,
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
 We cannot transform ourselves at all, let alone through the practice of trying to go from the outside to the inside.  When we try to use the law that way,  it simply won't work because the law can only point us to what we ought to be or to do, it cannot give us the power to become or accomplish what it requires.  Over at In Light of the Gospel, my friend James Grant has posted the following quote by Gerhard Forde (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p. 107), which summarizes my point well:
“We see that the law simply cannot bring into being what it commands…The law says, ‘Thou shalt love!’ It is right; it is ‘holy, true, good’. Yet it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of the law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will all too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels and say, ‘Look here, you’re supposed to love me!’ the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be just the opposite from what our ‘law’ demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”
This is not to suggest that there is not a proper place for the law in the Christian life. But if that is the question that immediately came to your mind, then I would suggest that prior to asking that question, you first ask the question of yourself that Tripp has asked, "Are we asking the law to do something that only grace can accomplish?".  Before we can learn how to properly use the law, we must first make sure we have a proper understanding of the role of grace in our lives, families, churches, etc.

What the law can only point to, grace can and does actually provide.  This is what God has promised in the new covenant:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people, (Jeremiah 31.33).

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules, (Ezekiel 36.26-27).

Do you see the connection between the Luke passage and these passages on the new covenant?  What we do is a reflection of what is already inside us--the outward is a reflection of the inward.  We cannot change the outward to effect the inward, it has to go from the inward to the outward.  And this can only be accomplished by God.  Left to ourselves we have hearts of stone, which we are powerless to change on our own, and especially through the law.  This inability is exhibited by Israel's breaking the old covenant, which is why God provided the new covenant, a covenant whose success is now guaranteed because God will accomplish it.  The result of this new covenant is that now, God gives us a new heart (that is grace), he gives us a new spirit (that is grace), he removes our heart of stone (that is grace), he writes his law on our new hearts (that is grace) and he causes us to walk according to his law and be obedient to it (that is grace).  By grace, God works on our inside so that, by grace, we can reflect his law in our outward behavior.  As Herman Bavinck once said, "Objectively and subjectively, from beginning to end, the work of salvation is a work of God's grace and of his grace alone," (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:486).

Notice, this list is all about what God does.  He doesn't say that he gives us a new heart, but then leaves it up to us to write his law on it--he gives and he writesWe cannot use the law to create new hearts within us.  We cannot use the law to cause us to walk in obedience.  We cannot create changes within us by making changes outside of us.  But as he makes changes within us, we can reflect his work on the outside. As John Calvin has said, "For by the transpiration of his power he so breathes divine life into us that we are no longer actuated by ourselves, but are ruled by his action and prompting. Accordingly, whatever good things are in us are the fruits of his grace; and without him our gifts are darkness of mind and perversity of heart, (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. 1.3, 541).

Now, for some people this is scary and for others this can be upsetting.  But this should not be bad news to you--for this is simply the good news of the gospel itself.  Life in the new covenant is all about grace.  What we cannot accomplish in ourselves, is accomplished for us by Jesus Christ and worked within us through the Holy Spirit: 
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, (Romans 8.3-4).
Let the gospel be the good news that it is, and look to it for your Christian walk so that you will not try to use the law for something it is not meant to do or can do.  So how about you, your family, your church, are you developing a culture of grace, or a culture of law?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Integrated Reading Schedule of the Westminster Standards

Have you ever been reading in the Westminster Confession and wondered how that topic or issue was addressed in one of the catechisms?  Well, Brandon Wilkins of A Pilgrim's Theology has put together a very helpful schedule for reading through the Westminster Confession and Catechisms that does just that.  The schedule takes one through all three documents in a month, allowing the reader to read through the three primary documents in an integrated fashion so that you can see the breadth of what the Standards say on a particular topic or issue all in one sitting.  This schedule can serve as a great resource for family worship, officer training, an inquirer's class, etc.

See the schedule here.

The Father of Reformed Biblical Theology

At my church, I lead a discussion group that is currently reading Geerhardus Vos' Biblical Theology.  I was pleased to be asked to do this as Vos is one of my favorite theologians and has probably had the most influence in shaping my approach to scripture and preaching.  Although Vos has been acknowledged as the father of Reformed Biblical Theology and has done much in shaping current trends in Reformed hermeneutics (the study of how you interpret the Bible), many are unfamiliar with this key figure.  So, here is a brief sketch of his life, ministry and approach to scripture that originally appeared in the Ordained Servant (Vol 8, No. 3, July 1999) and was co-authored by one of my mentors, John Muether and Darryl Hart.

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Geerhardus Vos, widely acknowledged as the father of Reformed Biblical theology. A descendent of French Huguenots, Vos was born in the Netherlands on March 14, 1862. He immigrated to the United States in 1881, when his father accepted a call to a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church, and he enrolled in what is now Calvin College, in Grand Rapids. From there he continued his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (1883-1885), and he eventually earned his Ph.D. from the University of Strassburg in 1888.

After teaching at Calvin for a few years, Vos went on to serve at Princeton Theological Seminary nearly forty years, where he taught many of the founding ministers of the OPC, such as Machen, Murray, Stonehouse, and Van Til. Yet Vos is not normally included in the chain of Old Princeton giants that preceded Machen and the OPC (a list generally restricted to Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield). Vos was "largely a forgotten man," according to one biographer. "Enrollment in his courses at [Princeton] often was sparse compared to those of other professors of a more 'popular' type, because of the weightiness of his lectures."

Another explanation for Vos's relative obscurity was his low ecclesiastical profile. Rarely did he step outside the classroom and into the courts of the church (though he fought Presbyterian attempts to revise the Westminster Confession). Nearing retirement when Machen founded Westminster in 1929, Vos, an opponent of Princeton's reorganization, did not leave Princeton for Westminster, nor did he ever join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Instead, he retired to southern California in 1932, and he then moved to Grand Rapids in 1937, where he lived until his death in 1949. Moreover, Vos never wrote for the Westminster Theological Journal or the Presbyterian Guardian. While Machen and other founders of the OPC may never have fully understood Vos's reasons for remaining in the PCUSA, there seemed a greater willingness to forgive him than others who stayed in. (The Guardian provided partial absolution in its obituary for Vos, noting that "when he retired in 1932, he left a valuable part of his library to Westminster Seminary.") Undoubtedly Catharine Vos, the author of the popular Child's Story Bible, has been far more widely read by Orthodox Presbyterians than her husband.

Much like Cornelius Van Til, Vos was an acquired taste. Biblical theology and presuppositional apologetics were new subjects in the curriculum of Presbyterian seminaries. Like Van Til, English was not Vos's native language, and his books quickly went out of print before their rediscovery after his death. His most well known work, Biblical Theology, was edited by his son and published by Eerdmans in 1948, just before his death.

Just as Vos was never a member of the OPC, so many of his best contemporary interpreters lie outside the denomination. James T. Dennison edits Kerux, a journal dedicated to redemptive-historical preaching in the Vosian tradition. At Gordon-Conwell Seminary, G. K. Beale is applying Vos's insights in New Testament exegesis (see for example his latest commentary on Revelation).

Still, it can be fairly said that no non-OPCer this century has influenced the denomination as much as Geerhardus Vos. Orthodox Presbyterians often describe themselves as a hybrid between Old Princeton and Dutch Calvinism. More than anyone else, Vos's long career at Princeton forged links between American Presbyterianism and Dutch Calvinism that were to shape the character of the OPC. Latter day Vosians in the church include Meredith G. Kline and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

For Vos, "biblical theology" was short-hand for the study of the history of special revelation. So the starting point of his theology was acknowledgment of the progressive character of the revelation that accompanies God's redemptive activity. Vos likened this progress to the growth of a tree: "It is sometimes contended that the assumption of progress in revelation excludes its perfection at all stages. This would actually be so if the progress were non-organic. The organic progress is from seed-form to the attainment of full growth; yet we do not say that in the qualitative sense the seed is less perfect than the tree."

In historian Mark Noll's words, Vos was "attempting to roll back the assumption, prevailing since the late seventeenth century, that historical consciousness was the natural ally of naturalistic views of the Bible." For Vos, this historical progression culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, whose work is revealed in the New Testament in terms of present inauguration and future consummation. G. K. Beale argues that while this interpretive approach is now standard (cf. Cullmann, Ridderbos, and Ladd), "Vos appears to be the first European or American scholar to espouse an ‘already and not yet eschatology'" to the theology of Paul. Yet the historical sensibilities in Vos's work has yet to gain full acceptance within the OPC, where suspicions persist that his approach may still concede too much to naturalism. Thus some contemporary exegesis of Scripture (for example, on creation), continues to miss its eschatological dimension.

Though originally a systematician, Vos's first love was biblical theology. Some of his followers suggest that Vosian biblical theology calls into question the very nature of dogmatics. Does Vos require a fundamental recasting of the categories of systematics? Can we even speak of a "system of doctrine" after Vos?

Those who would pit biblical theology against systematics have difficulty explaining Vos's long tenure at Princeton and especially his close friendship with Warfield. And Vos himself would hardly identify his insights as Copernican. He was deeply grounded in the Reformed dogmatic tradition. Far from jettisoning systematic theology, Vos was a staunch defender of Reformed confessional orthodoxy, and he used biblical theology to give fresh and creative defense of dogmatics, such as the doctrines of the covenant, soteriology, and the kingdom of God. The two disciplines were complementary, each transforming the biblical data in different ways. "Biblical theology draws a line of development," Vos wrote. "Systematic theology draws a circle." Following in the footsteps of Vos, Meredith G. Kline sees no hard and fast distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology: "biblical theology involves the systematization of the covenantal data under relatively broad historical epochs."

Vos's biblical-theological identification of the church as a pilgrim people has made the most indelible imprint on the OPC, even while it has provoked some of the OPC's strongest critics. American Christians are prone to judge the success of the church in terms of its influence in the world. For this reason, many have dismissed the OPC as "irrelevant" for its want of a social or cultural agenda. Seen from an eschatological perspective, however, it is more accurate to say that the OPC is committed to the "irrelevance" of the world to the church.

The OPC has been molded by Vos's reminder that, as part of the new eschatological order unveiled in the coming of Christ, the church locates its hope in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Secured in a life that is hid in Christ in the heavenlies, the church longs for the return of her Lord. This eschatological location of the church as the kingdom inaugurated and awaiting consummation is the legacy of Vos. For that source of solid hope and comfort, the OPC abandoned aspirations for earthly glory. A half-century after Vos's death, political gospels and this-worldly agendas continue to tempt the church. Reformed orthodoxy needs to give a fresh hearing to Geerhardus Vos, perhaps now more than ever.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Update On Paedocommunion as a Reformed or Presbyterian Practice

In a post last month, I quoted James Jordan in saying that the practice of paedocommunion is not a Reformed or Presbyterian practice.  Specifically he said that those who want to practice paedocommunion in the PCA "are poison to traditioal presbyterianism," and "if you believe in pc, you’re not in the Reformed tradition at all in a very significant and profound sense. No more than you’re Baptists."  Keep in mind here, these are his words not mine.

In response, there was some concern raised that I had provided an uncharitable and incorrect description of paedocommunion because I defined it as "the practice of allowing a child to partake of the Lord's Supper upon the sole condition of baptism.  This means that not only is a profession of faith not necessary to receive the sacrament worthily and as a blessing, the sacrament can be received worthily apart from faith and still communicate a blessing of grace."

Well, I do not want to be uncharitable or incorrect, so I offer, once again, the words of James Jordan in how he understands paedocommunion. 
  •   [Paedocommunion is] allowing all baptized and non-excommunicated persons to the table of the Lord . . .
  •  If our children eat at our table at home, they belong at Christ’s New Table also. Admission is by baptism, (emphasis mine).
  • Now, I believe that if we refuse to let our baptized covenant children come to the Lord’s Table, we are subtly but effectively communicating to them that they need to do some kind of works before they will be entitled to participate in this mysterious event. . . . If our children are entitled to sit at table at home, then they belong at the Table in church also.
 So, given what Jordan says here about paedocommunion, you can see why I defined it the way I did in order for his words about it not being a Reformed or Presbyterian practice could be rightly understood.  Jordan is not speaking of paedocommunion as the practice of allowing younger children who have provided a credible profession of faith from communing.  He strongly disagrees with that practice, stating that,
Now, I believe that if we refuse to let our baptized covenant children come to the Lord’s Table, we are subtly but effectively communicating to them that they need to do some kind of works before they will be entitled to participate in this mysterious event. . . . Also, we communicate the idea that participation in this mystical ritual is an attainment, not a gift. But away with such notions! If our children are entitled to sit at table at home, then they belong at the Table in church also.
So, to be clear, Jordan believes that requiring a profession of faith prior to participating in the Lord's Supper is wrong, and is not what paedocommunion means.  I was not being uncharitable or incorrect, I was simply defining paedocommunion according to his understanding.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reformed Presbyterian Church Podcast

That's right, the RP is now podcasting.  You can now find and subscribe to our sermons here.  Happy listening.

PCA Funding Plan Fails

Back in the summer the General Assembly voted to amend its constitution to change the way the Administrative Committee is funded. Right now, giving in the PCA is done on a voluntary basis. Amendment 14-1 would have completely changed that from voluntary giving to involuntary. Amendment 14-2 would redefine "voting membership" for General Assembly by creating new rules for who could vote at GA. According to this amendment, for a teaching elder to get to participate at GA, his church would have to pay the full amount established by the AC committee proposal, plus, he would also have to pay an additional personal tax on top of that. If these conditions are not met, then not only would he not get to vote, but the church would be reported to the GA.

However, even though GA voted in favor of these amendments, for them to be adopted, the presbyteries had to vote on them. For them to pass,2/3 of the 79 presbyteries (53) would have to vote in favor of the amendments.  For them to fail, over 1/3 of the presbyteries (27) would have to vote no.  Well as of yesterday, the New York State Presbytery became the 27th to vote down 14-1 and the Presbytery of Eastern Carolina became the 27th to vote down 14-2.  This means that even thought there are 23 presbyteries that still have to vote, the magical number of 53 cannot be obtained, so the amendments fail.

For a complete list of which presbyteries have voted for and against, see this article at The Aquila Report.

For a thorough recap of all the events leading up to where we are now, see this post at Johannes Weslianus.