Monday, January 27, 2014

How to Work towards the Unity of the Church and How Not to Work towards It

First of all, let me put forward this article from the journal First Things as a fantastic articulation of how we should work towards the unity of the church.  Author Matthew Block hits the nail right dead-center on the head.  It's a short, concise article, and the main idea is this:  "Visible unity between Christians and Christian churches can only be achieved when we all come to agreement on the doctrinal issues that are the foundation of the divisions.  Therefore, we need to have an ecumenical approach that focuses on resolving doctrinal disagreements."  I completely agree, and have articulated the same idea myself in various places, such as here and here.

The same article also points out one way in which we should not be seeking the unity of the church--a way, unfortunately, all-too-often adopted by Protestants.  Mr. Block refers to some words by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church.  The cardinal's words are both very perceptive and very depressing.  Here is a summary of what he said from a Roman Catholic news article (quoted here):

The main problem that we have today in the ecumenical dialogue with all the Protestant communities, is the lack of a common vision of the goal of the ecumenical movement. We have two different views. The Catholic view, (which) is also the Orthodox view, (is) that we will re-find the unity in faith in the sacraments and in ministries. Conversely, the vision that I find today in the Protestant churches and ecclesial communities (is that) of the mutual recognition of all the ecclesial communities as churches. In this Protestant vision, the goal of ecumenism presupposes a different understanding of “church.” Rather than unity visible in sacrament and ministry, the Protestant vision sees “church” as simply a conglomeration or “addition [i.e. sum] of all these ecclesial communities.” This is the view of the ecumenical goal that is very very difficult for us. … I think that the Reformation … has some basis in the division between Orthodox and Catholic, and when we can find new unity between Orthodox and Catholics, I think we have a better basis for the discussion between Catholics and Protestants,” said Cardinal Koch.

Matthew Block goes on to comment on Cardinal Kock's words:

It’s hard to argue with the cardinal’s assessment. Some, indeed, many of the most prominent voices in mainline Protestantism seem to have approached ecumenical dialogue this way in recent years. They want merely for everyone to recognize everyone else as faithful Christians. “We’ll keep our church; you keep yours. And we’ll all just get along together, recognizing each other’s churches as acceptable alternatives.” There is a danger that real doctrinal differences may be underplayed or ignored in such an ecumenical framework, all in the effort to achieve “mutual recognition,” as the cardinal says, of each other as equal manifestations of the Church.

But this is to seriously weaken the vision of Christian unity evoked in Christ’s prayer in John 17. When Christ prayed that all Christians would be one, he didn’t have in mind a unity in which doctrinal differences remain—Protestants believing one thing and Catholics another, and yet the two somehow assumed to be in fellowship with one another. Instead, he prayed that all would be sanctified in the truth—truth which is found, he says, only in the Father’s word. We must agree on this truth, then, in order for our unity to be real. The goal of ecumenism cannot be unity in spite of differences; it must instead be to come to a point where doctrinal differences no longer exist, where doctrinal agreement has been achieved, and structural unity can therefore be enacted as a result.

The cardinal's and Mr. Block's words are all-too-true.  Many Protestants, including those in the Reformed tradition, have abandoned a commitment to the worldwide visible unity of the church, even though the mandate for such unity is both biblical and confessional.  I've noted examples of this many times over the past year, such as here, here, here, and here.  Here is one dramatic example I've cited recently from a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (from an informal conversation on an unrelated topic):

So, many of these things come down to one's conscience before God and His Word. Prayerfully, they are in a church community that will help them answer those questions and will show love even if they disagree. This is why we have different churches and different denominations (pluralformity) because we all have different beliefs of what is right or wrong according to our informed consciences. That is why Paul does not offer details in many questions but emphasizes love, patience, longsuffering, gentleness, against which there is no law.

This is exactly the attitude Cardinal Koch and Matthew Block are talking about.  It is unbiblical and un-presbyterian, and if we truly want to pursue the unity of the church in an effective way--working towards doctrinal agreement with the goal of unifying the various churches into one, worldwide presbyterian communion--we need to get rid of it.  We need to stop being blinded by the current status quo, which makes us used to the idea of multiple denominations, and we need to feel the abhorrence for it that will truly motivate us to engage in the serious soul-searching and dialogue that will actually, by God's grace, carry us towards the proper goal.  There is only one Body of Christ, and therefore when denominations are divided from each other (at least among those that take the visible unity of the church seriously) there is a mutual rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.  The idea of multiple, independent denominations accepting each others' de jure legitimacy while agreeing to remain independent from each other has no place whatsoever in a biblical, presbyterian understanding of church government.  Taking this seriously will be a major step in helping Reformed and other Protestants engage with seriousness and effectiveness in the ecumenical enterprise.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reformation Party Covenant

The Reformation Party Council of Officers would like to invite anyone who shares the convictions expressed below to personally sign this covenant.  You can do so privately, of course, but if you wish to sign the covenant in a more public manner, you are welcome to send your name to us at info@reformationparty.org and we will add it to a list of names on the Reformation Party website.  When you send your name in, you could also, as you desire, send other information you would like printed with it, such as your city and state, your occupation, etc.  Another way to make your signing of the covenant more public would be to hold a public signing--that is, by creating a public event with invitations to people in the local church or community to come and join you, where you and perhaps others can sign the document together.  This sort of thing could be done at an already existing event as well, such as a Bible conference, etc.  You could even inform the media and invite them to be a part of it (if you feel comfortable with that!).  If you do a public signing, please send us (again, at info@reformationparty.org) a brief account of how it went which we can post along with your name on the website.  In these sorts of ways, we can let others know what we have done and encourage them with our own witness and stories.

There is much precedent in both biblical teaching and practice as well as in the history of the Reformed church for the practice of covenanting.  A "covenant" is an agreement between two parties.  Obviously, this concept plays a major role in biblical Christianity.  After the creation of man, God graciously entered into a covenant with Adam (the covenant of works), whereby he promised him glorified or eternal life upon the condition of a perfect and perpetual obedience. If Adam had not sinned and had received the promised reward, it would not have been because he, in and of himself, placed God in his debt; but because God always obeys his gracious promises. The covenant of works does have the concept of merit, but it is not merit in the sense that Adam’s own works have intrinsic value before God and thus force the Lord’s favor, but merit in the sense that God will honor a perfect and perpetual obedience because he has graciously promised to do so.   Even apart from his sinful condition connected to the Fall, man is incapable of meriting anything at the hand of God because everything he has comes from God.  A human being attempting to merit something from God is like borrowing $20 from a friend and then attempting to use that money to buy something from that same friend.  You can't buy something from someone using money that already belongs to him!

Recognizing this fact, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes the foundation of the idea of a covenant with God in this way:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (WCF 7:1).

We are reminded of Paul's words to his listeners on Mars Hill:

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things (Acts 17:24-25).

Because of our failure to meet the demands of the covenant of works, God has instituted another covenant, the covenant of grace, by means of which sinners can be saved from sin and made right with God.  In the covenant of grace, God "freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe" (WCF 7:2).

We see, then, that our very lives as created beings and as the redeemed are grounded in a covenant relationship with God.  In addition to these foundational covenants, there is a long tradition of God's people making additional covenants with God, which covenants involve additional vows to live a life of obedience to the will of God, supplicating him that he might glorify himself and bestow his blessings on those who have made and who keep their promises to God.

We see this practice in the lives of individuals.  Consider the example of Jacob in Genesis 28:20-22:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

Jacob was already in covenant with God, who had promised to be his God and to bless him (since he was Abraham's heir and thus heir to the covenant made with Abraham), but Jacob adds to this an additional vow to obedience and prayer for blessing, reaffirming his covenant relationship to God and its attendant blessings and responsibilities.

We also see this practice carried out by the people of God as a whole, or in larger groups, such as in a national capacity.  There are many examples of this in the Scriptures, such as the covenant the people of God made with God in the days of King Josiah:

And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant (2 Kings 23:1-3).

Since the apostolic age, the people of God have continued to engage in the practice of making and renewing covenants with God.  A prime example of this practice is the Solemn League and Covenant, which was sworn to by the leaders as well as the common people in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the seventeenth century.  In this covenant, the people of the three kingdoms swore their commitment to preserve, promote, and defend the true religion in the kingdoms according to their several places and callings.  Other prominent examples of this practice would include the covenanting of the Lords of the Congregation in Scotland during the sixteenth century as they bound themselves to God to promote the biblical Protestant faith in opposition to Romanism, and the Puritan New England colonies who practiced covenanting as a part of the foundation of their self-consciously biblical societies.

In light of this well-attested biblical, historic, and Reformed tradition, the current 2014-term Council of Officers of the Reformation Party have drafted and signed a covenant reaffirming our commitment to the promotion of submission to the Lord Jesus Christ as King of nations among all nations, and we encourage all those who share this commitment to express their unity with us in this endeavor by adding their own signature to the covenant.  The covenant is as follows:

For the advancement of the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we pledge by God's grace to seek, according to our several places and callings, that our nation and all other nations covenant with God to acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ, adopting the biblical doctrines, worship, discipline, and government outlined in the original Westminster Standards, supporting the church which maintains these, and seeking to assist and defend all those that enter into this (or similar) pledge and covenant.

We, the members of the 2014 Council of Officers, and all others who will join with us in signing this covenant, do so as a means of making a sacred vow before God, in reliance on his grace, to obey his command to spread his Word to the nations and to work as God's fellow laborers (1 Corinthians 3:9) towards the goal of the full conversion of all the nations to Jesus Christ, in their civil as well as in all other capacities.  We are assured that our labor to this end is not in vain, as God has promised to be with us as we go out to "teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).  God has promised to give all nations into the hands of his Son (Psalm 2), and the day will come when "all the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.  For the kingdom is the Lord's: and he is the governor among the nations (Psalm 22:27-28)."  "For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14).

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Gospel - Or, A Brief Explanation of the Heart of the Reformed Faith

This article is a pamphlet I wrote up a number of years ago (around January or February of 2002, to be more precise, though it's been modified a bit along the way since then) to be used as a tract explaining the heart of the gospel.

As its title suggests, this booklet is meant to be a concise, but thorough, introduction to the heart of the Reformed Christian faith. It is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to Reformed theology, but to explain what is at the very center of the Reformed way of looking at the universe. It does not deal with many doctrines that are a part of Reformed teaching, such as the nature of Scripture, the Church, the sacraments, worship, church government, and others. While these teachings are essential to Reformed theology, this booklet tries to get down to the bare skeleton of what Reformed Christianity is all about, dividing the discussion into four basic topics: 1. God is God and We Are Not. 2. We Were Created to Glorify God. 3. We Are Dead in Sin. 4. We Are Saved by Grace Alone.

We believe the Reformed Faith to be the most consistently biblical form of Christianity. This does not mean that all those who call themselves non-Reformed Christians are false Christians. All those who hold to the basic worldview presented here are true Christians, even if they are inconsistent in their articulation of some of the specifics. However, it is important for us to have as accurate an articulation of God and his ways as possible so that we can know him and live for him better, since this is the purpose of our existence.

God Is God and We Are Not

The Reformed Christian Faith begins and ends with God. We believe that there is only one God, and that he is the creator of all things. He is the ultimate explanation for all of reality. We believe this God to be self-existent, meaning that he was not created by anything or anyone. He looks up to no one, answers to no one, and is dependent upon no one. His will, rooted in his unchangeable nature, is the ultimate law. All things that exist are what they are because God made them that way, and all beauty and value they have comes from the fact that they to a greater or lesser degree reflect God. All creatures find the source of their duty in what God wants them to be and do. All of human history and the history of the whole universe, from the general course to the most specific details, occur in fulfillment of God’s designs. We believe that God is infinite, that is, unlimited and unhindered by anything or anyone. He is a being of limitless worth, limitless power, and limitless goodness. Because his power is infinite, he cannot be defeated. Nothing can stop him from doing all that he desires to do. And because of his infinite goodness, all that he wants to do is good. There is and there can be no trace of evil in him at all. He alone is worthy of worship, of being valued without qualifications or limits. And knowing and worshipping him is the only thing that can ultimately and completely satisfy the human soul, for to know him and delight in him is to experience limitless life, to possess a treasure of infinite value.

Reformed Christians believe that God exists and manifests himself in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (sometimes called the Holy Ghost). Each of these three persons is fully God. The Son has been begotten by the Father from all eternity, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son is the Word of the Father, his exact image, so that the Father is fully revealed in the Son and to know the Son is to know the Father. From all eternity, the Father has loved the Son and valued him infinitely, seeing his own glory fully manifested in him, and the Son has loved and valued the Father as the fullness and source of glory of whom he is begotten. Flowing from the Father and the Son and their relationship is a third person in whom God is fully manifested, the Holy Spirit.

We believe that nothing can compare with God. Everything in all the creation that God has made registers no worth at all on the scale when weighed against God’s infinite glory. Human beings, too, are nothing and have no worth whatsoever in comparison with God. We are not divine, and we have no capacity to attain divinity. We are mere creatures who have no potential for reaching anywhere near the infinite perfection and glory of God. We are utterly and completely dependent upon God for all that we are, while God is dependent upon nothing at all. We are dependent upon God for our very being: We came into existence by the power of God and his power is the only thing keeping us from going out of existence at every moment. We are dependent upon God for all that we become in life, since everything that happens to us, the entire course our lives take both in time and in eternity, is determined by the will of God. We are frail and impermanent beings, capable of being altered by circumstances, of failing, and eventually of dying. Our power is limited: we pride ourselves on our strength and yet the slightest change in the weather can kill us. We are limited in knowledge and wisdom: we make mistakes and act foolishly. And perhaps most tellingly of all, our goodness is limited: We are obviously capable of sin, of rebellion against God and cruelty toward each other. For all of these reasons, we are not to be relied upon or worshipped. God alone is worthy of worship!

We Were Created to Glorify God

We believe that the purpose of all of creation, and specifically of human beings, is to glorify God. From all eternity, God has delighted in his own perfections, displayed in the person of his Son, and this delight caused him to desire to see his glory manifested by creative expression, similar to the way an artist’s personality finds expression through his works of art. Stage one in this displaying of God’s glory came in the creation of the universe. Where there was nothing before, God, through the Son, created all things, including human beings. Creation displays God’s glory and beauty; as the Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a). Man, being made in the image of God, especially displays God’s glory, being able to image God in personal characteristics such as knowledge, will, love, goodness, etc., as well as in more natural characteristics that humans share with the rest of the physical creation. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in the garden of Eden to care for God’s creation and, most importantly, to live and to have children who would live in close fellowship with God, loving him with their whole hearts, thus imaging the Son’s character and reflecting God’s glory back to him. They would delight in God and God would delight in them. However, the creation of the world and of man is at the beginning of the story, not the end. God’s plan was not complete. After the creation, according to his eternal purpose, God allowed man to fall into sin, thus marring God’s image in him. Through God’s subsequent renovation of man and the rest of creation, God would complete his revelation of himself and fill the whole universe, and especially the heart of man, with the full display of his glory.

We Are Dead in Sin

As long as Adam and Eve lived in obedient fellowship with God, God took delight in them and granted them the fullness of joy in the enjoyment of himself. One of the primary ways their loving obedience was manifested was through their obeying God’s command not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree provided a test of their commitment to God. However, our first parents’ obedient fellowship did not last forever. Being tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden tree. In disobeying God, they followed Satan’s suggestion that they could become “like gods.” They came to see themselves as the authors of right and wrong, the creators of their own realities. They came to believe that they could produce their own happiness from themselves in their own way apart from God and in opposition to him, making themselves the centers of their own universes. Thus, they failed the test and became rebels and traitors against the one true God, who alone is to be ultimately relied upon and worshipped. Having lost their true love for God, they also ceased to love each other, made in God’s image, as they ought, and began using each other and the rest of creation for their own ends. Because of their rebellion and wickedness, God’s wrath burned against them, and he sentenced them to eternal separation from himself - a fitting punishment, since they had chosen separation from him - and to complete, infinite, and eternal misery under the punishment of his wrath in the fires of hell.

Being the children of Adam and Eve, and thus sharing in their curse, we are born into this world with corrupt, rebellious hearts and have turned away from God, attempting to produce our own happiness by our own means. And we, too, have the wrath of God and the sentence of eternal separation and punishment from God hanging over our heads. Like Adam and Eve, we have all failed the test of our obedience. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves from our miserable fate, because our rebellion is not merely skin deep but goes to the very center of our hearts. If a person makes a wrong choice, he can sometimes be given a second chance to show that he can do better, that he will ultimately choose to do the right thing if given enough help. We, however, have all already made our ultimate choice. There is no point for a second chance. Our deepest motivations are flawed, and we cannot simply make ourselves new people with new motives by an act of will. Our records bear clear and irreversible witness to the fact that we are not the kind of people who love God with our whole hearts. We may do outwardly good things; we may have some good natural affections; we may appear to love God and others to a point. But at the deepest level, any apparent love or good that we have or do is subservient to the ultimate pursuit of the various idols we have created for ourselves and is therefore ultimately displeasing to God. As soon as God’s goals and our idolatrous goals come into conflict, God’s goals inevitably go out the window. Left to ourselves, we are doomed.

It may seem from all of this that God’s purpose to glorify himself through his creation has been frustrated. But it is not so. Our rebellion did not take God by surprise, but was ordained by him in order to accomplish his purpose. How God is doing this is the subject of the next section.

We Are Saved by Grace Alone

The final stage of God’s displaying of his glory occurred (and is occurring) in the redemption of the fallen creation and of fallen man. God the Son came into the world and took on a human nature, becoming a human being while still remaining God. That human being was Jesus Christ. Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, culminating in his offering himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sin. Christ suffered and died on the cross, paying the full penalty for our sin under the infinite wrath of God. Three days later, the Father honored his obedience by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand, restoring him to the rightful position which he deserved as God’s Son, where he intercedes for us. By his suffering and obedience, Christ removed the debt of our guilt from us and obliterated it, and merited for us righteousness by which we might be worthy of being fully accepted as beloved children of God. By Christ’s uniting himself to us, we, who have no worthiness of our own but are nothing but wicked traitors against God, have his payment of our sin and perfect righteousness credited to our account, and it is by this payment and this righteousness alone that we are worthy of receiving the reward of being loved by God forever as his eternal children. We contribute nothing from ourselves to our worthiness of this infinite honor, but rest only in Christ’s worthiness. All the credit goes to him.

If we are saved by Christ’s righteousness and none of our own, does this mean that our character and how we live our lives no longer matter? As the Apostle Paul put it, “May it never be” (Romans 6:2)! When God credits Christ’s righteousness to our account, he also applies Christ inwardly. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s righteousness is applied to our hearts, causing a change in our innermost being. God removes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. We are totally renovated, and our innermost motives and values are totally changed. Instead of continuing to hate God as rebels, we come to love him with all of our hearts. We come to see him as our chief treasure and to seek him above all else. We come to rely on him and on his saving work in Christ alone as the sole source of all things pertaining to our salvation from sin and our attainment of eternal life, including the very faith that relies on him alone. We come to hate our sin and to repent from it and turn to righteousness, living in obedience to God’s commandments. Instead of being wicked and corrupt in God’s sight, we become holy and pleasing, conformed to the image of his eternal Son who is living in us. We come to have fellowship with our Father, loving him and delighting in him and being loved and delighted in by him.

We must not think that by the holiness and good works that come to us through the rebirth of our hearts we have in any way or in any degree paid God back for his grace or contributed something to our own salvation. None of our holiness comes from ourselves, but all is a fruit of Christ’s righteousness applied to us by the Holy Spirit and is therefore a sheer gift. As Paul put it, we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in [us] both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). Our holiness is not ultimately our work or a condition we fulfill from ourselves to gain God’s grace; rather, it is God’s work and therefore we rely on him for it and give him all the credit. We must choose to repent, believe in and trust ourselves to Christ, and seek to live in obedience to God’s commandments if we expect to receive eternal life. But we must recognize that our good will is not from ourselves but is a work and gift of God in Christ, a fruit of God’s grace. We only choose the right because we are caused to choose it by God’s grace. Without grace, we can choose only sin. With grace, we can choose only to live a life of faith, repentance, and obedience. We truly choose the right voluntarily, but grace causes our choices by inclining our hearts to want to choose the right so that we inevitably do so. Thus, grace causes all of our good works. Not only this, but even those whom God has caused to choose righteousness choose it only imperfectly in this life; there is always a struggle against the old sinful nature. God’s grace has not yet completed its task. Yet we keep moving ahead, looking forward to the day when God will complete the work he has begun and bring us to perfection.

If Christ has brought such a complete salvation, why are only some people saved? Obviously, it is because some people have turned from their sins and come to Christ and some haven’t. But we must not leave the issue there. Left to ourselves, we would never come to Christ. Left to ourselves, we are rebels at the very core of our being. We hate God as God and we are in love with our sins. As we saw above, it is the Spirit applying Christ to our hearts that gives us new hearts and thus causes us to choose to turn to Christ. Turning to Christ is not a condition we fulfill from ourselves in order to gain Christ; rather, it is something that happens due to God’s saving work in us. Well then, again, why are some saved and some not? This brings us back to the very foundation of our salvation, the unconditional election of God. None of us deserves grace. All of us have sinned and made ourselves unworthy of God’s acceptance and justly deserving of his eternal wrath. But God chose a people for himself out of the world to whom he would give saving grace. As the apostle says, “For those he foreknew [i. e. intended a special relationship with beforehand - see Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 7:23; Romans 11:2, 28], he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those he called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). And elsewhere, “And we were dead in our trespasses and sins . . . even as the rest, but . . . God made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1-4). God chose who would be saved and who would not, whom he would give converting grace to and whom he would leave in his/her sin. Those who are saved come to him, moved by his grace; the rest of the human race God leaves to themselves, allowing them to go the way of their own choosing as sinners by nature and thus reject Christ and suffer the infinite punishment of divine justice forever. God did not choose his elect because of any good in them that made them better than the others, for all are by nature “children of wrath”. He did not base his decision on anything we would choose or do, because in ourselves we can choose and do nothing but sin. But God wanted it made clear that no one deserves salvation; all could have been left as those he passed by are left. This highlights the fact that our salvation from its very foundation in God’s purpose is due not to our own merit but to the free grace of God. We contribute nothing from ourselves, but are receivers of all.

In the salvation of his chosen people, God is fulfilling his purpose for the creation of the world. By revealing his power and character in contrast to and in response to man’s weakness and wickedness, showing his justice in the punishment of wicked men, and overcoming the failure and wickedness of his chosen ones through his effective salvation, God is revealing the fullness of his glory to his creatures, especially to those he has made his own eternal children. By God’s grace and through his power, the redeemed people of God are enabled to gaze on the fullness of God’s revealed glory and are being changed into the image of God’s Son. Although our conformity to the image of God will not be complete until after this life is over, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us awaits our resurrection and glorification, which will occur when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead and to set up his eternal kingdom, substantial progress has been and is being made. When God’s work is completed, we who are God’s people will be so filled with the vision of God that we will become perfectly conformed to the image of the Son, delighting in God our Father to the full satisfaction of our souls and to the full glorification of his name as we share in and reflect God’s glory to all eternity. Then God’s purposes will be fully accomplished, and God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

An Invitation

Now that you have heard the truth about who God is, who man is, the sinful condition of man, and how salvation comes, the next question is, What will you do with these truths? Or, to put it more accurately, what will you do with Christ? It is Christ who is calling to you through the message, exhorting you to come to faith and repentance--to own God as God, own yourself to be the sinful, rebellious creature that you are, turn away from your rebellion and submit your life to God’s will and purposes, and trust in Christ alone for all things necessary for salvation and eternal life, including the very will to turn to him. Will you come to Christ in faith and repentance, or will you reject the truth and continue in your rebellion? If you do not come to Christ, you have only yourself to blame and must face the reality of God’s wrath forever. If you do come to Christ, you have only God to thank and you will spend eternity in grateful and delightful praise to him for his marvelous grace and glory, enjoying and glorifying him forever!

Soli Deo Gloria!

Why Bother with Biblical Politics While We Are a Minority in a Secular Culture?

The Reformation Party advocates for a biblical, Reformed view of politics and social ethics.  We are active both in setting forth a biblical view of civil government on a theoretical level and in encouraging people to take practical action in various ways towards the realization of the biblical ideal.  This activity raises a very natural question/objection that goes something like this:

Why are you bothering to talk about biblical politics, the biblical role of civil magistrates, and what a biblical society would look like in this day and age?  Haven't you noticed that we are very, very far from having anything like a Christian civilization?  Sure, it made sense to think and talk about biblical politics back in the 1600's, but now we live in a secular western culture that doesn't even understand the basics of the gospel or the fundamentals of Christianity, much less a proper view of biblical politics.  Doesn't it make more sense at this time to simply focus on preaching the gospel and leave the political implications of biblical theology to be pursued by society when there are enough orthodox Christians around to actually make such ideas remotely realistic?  When the church focuses too much attention on political issues in our modern society, such as the constant harping on same-sex marriage that has gone on of late, we alienate non-Christians and obscure the preaching of the gospel, making it look like all we are concerned about is imposing our bigoted values on others who cannot possibly understand the rich theological context of our beliefs regarding such things as homosexuality and other moral issues.

These concerns are very natural ones, and I confess that I myself have sometimes felt swayed by them.  But I think their plausibility is merely superficial.  Here are some points I would make in response to them:

1. God has given us his Word as a whole, and he doesn't want us to neglect any portion of it just because it may not seem relevant at a given time.  God's Word gives us teaching that has social and political implications.  The church has a task to read, study, ponder, and come to understand what God has revealed to us on any subject his Word addresses.  That is why the church has always been in the business of developing systematic theologies.  Even if it was completely impossible at this time to implement any biblical principles regarding politics at all, it would still be important for us to consider what God has told us on these matters.

2. Even if it were the case (which it is not, as I will argue below) that biblical political ethics is of no practical value whatsoever at this time, there is no reason to assume that this will always be the case in the future.  I won't get into eschatology at this time, but whatever your eschatological views there is no reason to think that what happened in the past cannot happen again in the future.  We have had explicitly Christian civilizations in the past.  In fact, until very recently, the entire western world was nothing but explicitly Christian civilizations for nearly 1700 years.  None of these civilizations were perfect, by any means, but they were explicitly Christian, and they cared (at least theoretically) about biblical social and political ethics.  It doesn't make sense for the church to wait until the culture becomes more Christian and only then begin to work out how we as a society should function in a biblical manner.  We ought to be ready with answers before the time comes that we need them, just as we recognize in every other area of life.

3. The "Great Commission" Jesus gave to the church was to "go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."  The command was not simply to teach a twelve-point statement of "essential Christian doctrines," or to teach individuals how to be "saved" on a purely individual level.  The command was to teach the entirety of the Word of God to the nations, and that includes its teaching regarding social and political ethics.

4. Following up with #3, we are not just to preach the gospel to the nations (in the sense of the fundamental biblical teaching regarding salvation), but the law of God as well.  The law is the context for the gospel, without which it makes no sense.  And the purpose of the gospel is to bring people into a right relationship with God and his law.  And that law includes not just instructions for isolated individuals but also commands for how humans are to live in relationship with each other.  The gospel does not just save us as individuals from hell.  It conforms us to God's law as individuals but also as fathers, mothers, children, husbands, wives, employers, employees, church elders, church members, civil rulers, civil citizens, etc.  The world does not consist of humans living in isolation from one another, but of humans living together and forming societies.  The preaching of God's Word to the nations, therefore, is not merely for the salvation and sanctification of individuals, but for the sanctification of families, churches, and entire societies.  The social and political teaching of Scripture is an essential part of God's instructions to us which he uses to sanctify us, and all of it must be taught to the church and by the church to the nations.

5. Our non-Christian world is very interested in social and political ethics.  Such matters are frequently and enormously discussed, pondered over, and worked out in our societies.  This is quite natural, as social-ness is such a central feature of human life.  The world wants to hear what we Christians have to say about such matters and how God's Word speaks to them.  They will not be impressed if we refuse to think about or discuss such central issues and instead choose to focus only on matters of individual salvation.  If we refuse to confront the world with God's Word as it speaks to social and political matters, we will present the impression that that the Bible has nothing important to say to such matters and that only the prevailing Naturalistic secularism has any insight in such things.  When we present a Christian worldview to our secular culture, we need to present that worldview in connection with all the matters that come under the purview of human concern.  Certainly, we need to remain balanced in our presentation of the Christian worldview.  Same-sex marriage, for instance, surely isn't the most important issue in the world, and we should not treat it as such.  However, we do not want to fall into the opposite "pietistic" extreme either.  We do not wait until our culture is already Christian before we speak out on matters such as child sex trafficking, abortion, justice in warfare, and many other social issues, even though the moral principles that are relevant in these matters, just as with same-sex marriage, only ultimately make sense in the context of the full Christian worldview.  We do not refrain from speaking out against theft, murder, etc., even though these are only objectively wrong because God's will is opposed to them.  So why would we wait to speak out on same-sex marriage, or euthanasia, or even religious freedom and toleration?  Secular people are not stupid.  They know that we have views on such matters, and they will not be fooled by our patronizing attempts to avoid bringing them up for fear of "turning people off."  This tactic will rightly be regarded as an attempt to dishonestly distort the presentation of our point of view in an effort to be more popular, and it will not be respected.  Instead, we ought to confront the culture with a balanced, holistic picture of all that God has to say.

6. Finally, there are practical things that can happen here and now, despite the minority status of those of us who hold consistently biblical views of social and political ethics.  We may not be able to get a fully-consistent, Reformed Christian president elected in the United States in 2016, but there is much we can do in the meantime.  In addition to confronting our culture with the fullness of the Christian worldview, we can be working on a more local level to influence civil government as it exists closer to us.  We can exert influence in our local communities and towns, and we can work towards the establishment of local Christian communities that can shape the culture around them.  See here for some specific suggestions from the Reformation Party as to how you can get involved in promoting biblical politics in a practical way.

We live in a world today dominated at the highest echelons by Naturalistic, secular thinking.  But rather than making us slink away, afraid of offending prevailing sensibilities, the times we live in should be an encouragement to us to do as the early Christians did in the pagan Roman culture in which they lived--boldly confront non-Christian culture with the full force of God's truth.  Secularism may seem very strong, but it is rotten at heart and must one day fall, just as the Roman Empire eventually submitted to Christ as Lord.  Let us, trusting in God's grace and providence, confront our society with the alternative that is the only thing that is truly of real substance.

The Establishment Principle and the Unity of the Church

This article was written as a two-part guest post on Matthew Vogan's blog.

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. 



I have read the above-quoted portion of the Westminster Confession many, many times, but it was only recently that a particular phrase of it stood out to me, a phrase that briefly states an idea that I think is of enormous importance for the ideal of church unity.  In describing the duties of the civil magistrate relating to religion, the Confession notes that it is the civil magistrate's duty "to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church."  Particularly, I am now interested in the idea that part of the role of the civil magistrate is to help preserve "unity" in the church of Christ.

WHAT IS THE ESTABLISHMENT PRINCIPLE

How does the civil magistrate help preserve unity in the church of Christ?  In order to answer this question, we need to look at the overall idea of civil government put forward by the Westminster Confession.  The Confession puts forward a biblical view of the relationship between civil government and religion that has come to be known as the Establishment Principle.  The Establishment Principle can be expressed in these two basic concepts:

1. The civil magistrate is not neutral in religious matters.  This non-neutrality is both a logical necessity and a moral imperative.  The civil magistrate is in the business of making and enforcing civil laws and public policies.  In order to do this, he (or they--I'll use the singular pronoun for shorthand while recognizing the diversity of forms civil government can take) must have in mind ideals as to how society should function, a hierarchy of valuable ends that are worth pursuing, beliefs about what is right and wrong and good and bad, a perspective on what the purpose of civil government is and thus what tasks he should be about, and so on.  But all of these ideals, beliefs, values, etc., are dependent upon which worldview is actually true.  If Agnosticism or Atheism is the worldview through which we should view the world, this will lead to a particular set of ideals, values, and beliefs.  If Islam is the correct worldview, this will lead to a quite different set of values and beliefs.  If Reformed Christianity is true, this will lead to yet another distinct set of beliefs and values.

Granting that this is the case, it is evident to the mind of man, whether illuminated by special revelation or not, that civil governments ought to base their laws and policies not on falsehood but on reality.  It would be absurd to hold that while it is good for individuals to base their lives on reality, it is perfectly reasonable and harmless for entire societies to be grounded in fundamentally false views about the nature of the universe.  This is why Atheists and Agnostics are so bent on bringing about a fully secular society.  A secular society is a society that assumes that we have no knowledge of the supernatural but only of the natural world.  Secularists like to present secularism as a neutral point of view upon which government can be based, but of course it is not neutral at all--it is the political instantiation of Agnosticism or Atheism.  How foolish, then, is it for Christians to advocate for a secular society!  Can we imagine Atheists advocating for a Christian or an Islamic theocracy?  Of course not.  And yet we see Christians all too often advocating for an Agnostocracy or an Atheocracy (though they don't put it so bluntly).

Both Christian common-sense, then, as well as the Bible, leads us to conclude that the civil government should not be secular but should be explicitly, officially Christian.  The civil magistrate should acknowledge and establish the true Christian religion and base his laws and policies on that truth.  We see this idea put forward, among many other places in Scripture, in Romans 13:1-7:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
The Westminster Confession summarizes this teaching in this way:

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers. (WCF 23:1)

The civil magistrate is the "minister of God," whose job it is to keep the public sphere clear of evil and safe for the good as much as possible, judging good and bad and learning the rules and methods of his governing from the revelation of God.

Note also that these biblical principles do not lead to the conclusion that the civil magistrate should acknowledge and ground his laws in only some portion of God's revealed truth while neglecting other parts of it.  The established religion should not be merely a lowest-common-denominator, watered-down form of Christianity, but it should embrace the fullness of the the whole counsel of God.  Just as the individual, and the family, and the church, has no right to ignore any portion of God's Word, so the civil magistrate must also acknowledge all of it.  The church ought not to be simply "Christian" in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way, but it should have a confession that is distinctly Reformed and Presbyterian (because the Reformed faith, summarized in the Westminster Standards, is the full and purest expression of biblical Christianity).  Similarly, it is not just a watered-down Christianity that should be embraced by the civil magistrate and by the entire society, but true, biblical, Reformed Christianity.

2. The civil magistrate should not only acknowledge and establish the true religion in an abstract sense, but he should formally recognize the official rulers of the church.  It is not enough for Christians and for churches to acknowledge some abstract concept of "proper biblical civil governance."  We must fully and formally recognize the specific civil government that is set over us and the specific rulers who have formal rule over us in the civil sphere.  To put it more specifically, as an American, I cannot simply acknowledge the abstract principles of biblical civil government; I must also formally acknowledge my allegiance to the particular civil government set over me by the providence of God--the federal government of the United States of America, the government of the State of Utah, and the government of the City of Orem.  I must recognize and show proper respect and deference to all those who are formally recognized to have an official role in the functioning of these legitimate governments.  If I do not like the current president of the United States, I cannot simply ignore him and decide to set up my own president.  This would be rebellion against those who have lawful rule over me.

In the same way, the civil magistrate has an obligation not just to acknowledge in the abstract the doctrines of the true religion; he must also formally, explicitly, and officially recognize as established the true church of God.  He must formally acknowledge and recognize the sessions, presbyteries, synods, and national assembly of the true church of Christ in his nation.  He must recognize the formally-appointed officers who make up these ecclesiastical governing bodies.

The ideal the Establishment Principle points to is a situation where the society as a whole embraces a formal recognition of all of the leaders God has appointed over the people--both civil and ecclesiastical (and parental).  The society of the United States of America, for example, ought to acknowledge both an official body of civil governance and an official body of ecclesiastical governance, which bodies mutually and formally acknowledge each other and support each other in their distinct spheres of jurisdiction and activity.  Here in America, this concept is extremely foreign, as we have never had an officially-recognized established church.  In Scotland, on the other hand, this situation is at least in principle familiar (if not currently functioning in the best of conditions, to put it mildly).

THE ESTABLISHMENT PRINCIPLE AND THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH

At this point we can begin to see how the Establishment Principle (EP) supports the unity of the church of Christ.  We can see this partly by recognizing how societies that have abandoned (either explicitly or in practice) the EP and instead embraced a voluntaristic view of the relationship between church and state have correspondingly had trouble maintaining the unity of the church.

In the United States of America, for example, abandonment of the EP has gone hand in hand with abandonment of the concept of the formal unity of the church.  This can be seen by taking a look at the revised version of the Westminster Confession embraced by the mainstream Presbyterian tradition in the United States, in particular the section on the civil magistrate that corresponds to the quotation from the original version of the Confession quoted at the very beginning of this article:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance (Westminster Confession 23:3 as revised by American Presbyterian synods in 1788).

Notice the intertwining here of two ideas, 1. that the civil magistrate ought not to establish or even show any favoritism to any particular Christian denomination, and 2. that there are multiple legitimate denominations.  Historically, the embracing of denominationalism--the idea that there can be multiple, legitimate, de jure denominations--is what led to opposition to the EP.  If there is more than one legitimate denomination, then it wouldn't make sense for the civil magistrate to establish only one of them.  And yet the civil magistrate can't establish all of them, because they are not in full formal communion with each other and have contradictory teachings and practices.  An attempt to formally recognize all of them fully would result in a contradictory position for the civil government.  So the only solution was to disestablish them all and treat them all, in effect, as private organizations no different in principle from the Boy Scouts or a country club or any other purely voluntary, not-officially-recognized organization.

Disestablishmentarianism (that is, the abandonment of the principles of the EP) and denominationalism tend to reinforce each other in a society.  Historically, in Britain and in the United States in particular, the pattern seems to have worked in this way:  Before 1690, most Christians were opposed both to denominationalism and to disestablishmentarianism.  They believed firmly that the church of Christ is one and that the nature of the church is incompatible with idea of multiple de jure denominations, and they also believed firmly that the state should formally acknowledge the legitimate denominational church.  However, in 1690, toleration begin to be established in Britain.  Multiple churches were allowed to exist without hindrance.  This contributed more and more over time to the advancement of an agnostic attitude in British society, and people became more and more indifferent to the truth claims of the various churches.  This attitude of indifferentism, in turn, created a lack of concern for the unity of the church.  "Agreeing to disagree in a friendly and charitable manner" came to replace biblical unity as the ideal for the people of God.  Toleration and indifferentism combined led to the setting up of more and more denominations until the point was reached that most of the church and the broader society became used to having multiple churches and thought nothing of it, even embracing it as the ideal--the state we are in today, except that we've now gone even further and embraced non-Protestant forms of Christianity and even non-Christian religions and Atheism and Agnosticism into the mix.  Denominationalism and indifferentism, in turn, serve to reinforce the idea that the civil government should not establish a particular church, which then continues to reinforce denominationalism, which continues to reinforce disestablishmentarianism, and so on.

It is easy to see how an embracing of the EP would tend to be a scourge for denominationalism and would encourage concern for the formal unity of the church.  We don't tend to have a problem similar to denominationalism in the civil sphere.  That is, we don't live in societies where people go around joining themselves to a whole host of different civil magistrates based on their personal taste, agreeing happily to disagree:  "Oh, David Cameron is your Prime Minister?  That's nice!  My personal Prime Minister is Ed Miliband!"  This doesn't happen because we understand the concept that there is an officially recognized civil government.  A person doesn't get to be a civil magistrate simply be standing up and declaring himself to be one.  He has to be properly appointed and legitimately recognized.  Otherwise, he is not legitimate, however much he may protest that he is or wish to be.  Similarly, in the EP system, the church is formally recognized by the society.  One cannot simply decide to start a new denomination and have it be recognized as legitimate.  One has to go through the proper channels, and if one doesn't do so, one cannot be recognized as having any legitimate authority.  If a session, or a presbytery, decides to break from the rest of the established church, the society will view that session or presbytery as having forfeited its legitimate authority to function and will treat it accordingly.

Thus, an EP way of looking at things, in contrast with voluntarism, will make it impossible for a situation to arise in which the legitimate church can come to be viewed as being made up of multiple independent denominations.  Just as the fact that the federal government of the United States has an official position on who the legitimate governor of Utah actually is prevents multiple governors from being considered to be legitimate and accepted by different people in Utah, so the formal recognition of the true church by the civil government will have the effect of preventing multiple independent ecclesiastical organizations from being considered all to be legitimate, de jure churches (though it may still be recognized that those who are not members of the established, legitimate church may be, in fact, regenerated members of Christ's Body de facto or informally).  The question of the de jure legitimacy and authority of the various existing denominations and the mandate of the unity of the church must be faced whether or not the civil magistrate does his part by formally recognizing and establishing Christianity and the church, but if he does do his part, it makes it much harder for the society to forget the importance of these principles and these questions and for the indifferentism that allows denominationalism to flourish to become established.  In this way, the civil magistrate has a major role to play in taking order "that unity and peace be preserved in the Church."

Near-Despair and Hope at Lolo's Grocery

"If the INTP is not able to find a place for themself which supports the use of their strongest abilities, they may become generally negative and cynical. . . . They usually have complex characters, and may tend to be restless and temperamental."


This is going to be another one of those rare biographical posts . . .

This past week has been crazy.  I am an adjunct instructor in Philosophy, and I've been teaching at two different schools in two different (nearby) cities.  Due to a desire to teach fewer classes (I've had to teach six every semester to make enough money--hence the two different schools) in order to focus my more full attention on working with my students, as well as to one of the two schools not offering me enough classes for this Spring semester, I've been looking into teaching at only one school and complementing my income in other ways.

This past week, I tried working at a bakery at a local grocery store.  That was an "interesting" (loaded term) experience.  The job schedule was five days a week from 3:00 AM to 11:00 AM, meaning I had to get up at 1:30 in the morning most mornings.  I was originally planning to have family activities earlier in the afternoon while sleeping in the evenings (going to bed at about 6:30 PM so that I would be sleeping from 6:30 PM to 1:30 AM), but this didn't work well for the family activities, so instead I tried sleeping some in the afternoons (except on the two days a week I have afternoon classes to teach) and then a little more at night (between around 10:00 PM to 1:30 AM).  The whole thing proved unsustainable for probably obvious reasons, and I decided to quit.  My last day was Saturday.

Although the whole situation lasted only a week, it brought upon myself and my family what John of the Cross would have called a "dark night of the soul."  I knew I would hate doing the job, and I ended up hating it even more than I had expected.  It made family life far more complicated (and really insufficient), I would never get enough sleep, and it is simply very hard to fry doughnuts from about 3:15 AM to 6:30 AM nearly every morning, followed by a two-hour cleanup period (after a ten minute break), followed by a half-an-hour lunch break, followed by miscellaneous jobs (packing french bread, putting dough on trays, etc.), for the remaining couple of hours or so, followed by going home to go to sleep (if possible) for a few hours or teaching classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  The whole thing put me nearly into a state of despair.  I felt completely miserable.  I occurred to me that as far as knew, I might spend the rest of my life doing this, which made death significantly more appealing than life to me.  My wife had a similar reaction, and it was very hard on my children as well.  It looked as though I was going to spend of the rest of my life spending much of my time in a job that sidestepped the main skills and interests God has given me in life (teaching, apologetics, philosophy, etc.) and instead doing something for which I had no interest or significant talent, a mind-numbing occupation designed only to give my family the money we need to survive.  (If this whole situation seems like not a big deal to you, it is because you don't understand the inner workings of my personality.  You may just have to take my word for it that this kind of situation constitutes a terrible misery for a personality such as mine.  If you are an INTP, you may understand better from your own personal experience.  Part of the context, too, is that we have been working for a long time towards a more stable, full-time teaching position and have had to endure many disappointments over the years, so this new situation seemed to be a climax to all of that.)

After suffering a few breakdowns due to near-despair for the first couple of days, brought on partly by a couple times having my hopes being raised and then dashed of ever getting out of there, on Thursday I faced very hard the fact (as it seemed to me) that this very well may be what my life would look like from that point on, with no real hope of reprieve.  I spent Thursday morning feeling the horror and misery of this situation (while frying doughnuts).  I hated what I had to do, and yet I felt I had a moral obligation to do it.  I must support my family, and if this is the only way, so be it.  I have no choice.  I must do what I must do.  Eventually, during that day, I started to feel better, as I began to adjust to acceptance of my fate.  By afternoon and evening, I had accepted my lot, and was actually feeling cheerful.  I decided that if I must bear this situation, then it must be bearable.  I told my wife that we needed to accept the situation and stop hoping for an escape, for hope is something that makes a miserable life situation far worse.  Without hope, acceptance can more easily settle in.  My wife was less ready to give up at that point than I was (I had to give up or go crazy), and we continued to discuss whether my schedule was compatible with long-term health.  That very evening, we talked to my father, who is a licensed physician, and through his help came to the conclusion that, objectively speaking, the cost to my health would be too much to make it right morally to continue with the job, and I quit two days later, my last day being this past Saturday.

If I had continued with the job, I have no doubt that I would have spent the rest of my life going through cycles of near-despair and calm acceptance, but it seems the acceptance would have prevailed.  And it dawned on me on Friday that this is part of what God was teaching and showing me through this time.  Throughout the week, I repeatedly begged God to rescue me (us) from the horror of the situation, but I knew that he had no obligation to do so.  He knows what he is doing, and he will ordain all things in such a way that is best both for his glory and for our good.  As far as personal merit goes, I deserve hell, so I certainly can claim no right in justice to be released from an awful job situation, no matter how bad it is.  God allows some of his children to be tortured in far worse ways in this life without reprieve, and I can expect in justice no better.  I knew all of this, and that is why, by the time Thursday rolled around, I had lost all real hope of getting out of there.  It seemed to me that God had denied my pleas for rescue, and that this was my assigned lot.  And, finally, I accepted it.  I chose to be content despite the horror of the situation.  And then, nearly immediately afterwards, God answered our prayers and rescued us from the situation, and now it's over.  And we are far less likely to go back to such a situation again, now that we have learned more about our limits and needs as persons and as a family.  It will take an extreme necessity to make us consider such job options in the future.

What was God doing in this situation?  No doubt far more than we'll ever know in this life.  But I can see a few things already.  As I mentioned above, we have learned more about ourselves and what sort of job situation is good for us.  We are significantly less naive than we were a week ago, and this will be a major help to us in the future.  On a more profound level, I feel that I have been through something kind of like (though to a lesser degree, of course) the test God required of Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac.  I was put in a situation where I had to abandon hope for anything like the kind of life I wish to live and am suited to live, and where I had to accept and be content in a situation that was so horrible to me that I was close to despair (and would have bouts of this feeling regularly for the rest of my life), and I did it.  I came to accept the situation, and I chose to be content and do what I was required to do.  Through this, God showed me in a special way the work of his Spirit in me.  He showed me my humanity in the near-despair and the breakdowns I experienced, and he showed me his work in me in my acceptance and choice to be content and to do my duty no matter what.  In this way, he has strengthened my confidence in him and my assurance of his work in me and the perseverance that work produces.  And by answering my prayer finally and rescuing me (us) from the situation (and after only a week!), he showed me that while I must be content whatever my lot, I need not assume that my life will not go in a way that is closer to what I hope it could be.  I don't know what he has in store for me, for us, but I have hope that I will find more and more ways to contribute to his glory, to the church and to the world, in the use of my gifts and talents in those matters he has created me to be interested in.

So, in short, a lot has been learned this past week, and I wanted to share it.  I hope my sharing it will be helpful to others.

Friday, January 10, 2014

More Examples of Semi-Congregationalism in Modern American Presbyterian Churches

I've recently come across a couple more noteworthy examples of so-called presbyterians saying dramatically un-presbyterian things about church government and the unity of the church, exhibiting the semi-congregationalist attitude that has become so prevalent in so many Reformed circles today.

My first example today is from Loraine Boettner, who is a well-known Reformed theologian from the twentieth century and was a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  I've not read a ton of what he has written, but I think his classic work, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, is fantastic.  It is one of my favorite books, and it has been used to help many to come to a better understanding of the TULIP doctrines of the Reformed faith.

However, it appears that in matters of the nature of the church and church unity, Boettner's theology left much to be desired.  Here is a selection from his book Roman Catholicism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962, pp. 20-21):

    In the Bible the word "church" never means a denomination.  The Bible has nothing to say about denominations.  Whether a local church choose to remain strictly independent, or to enter into a working agreement with one or more other local churches, and if so on what terms, is not discussed in Scripture, but is left entirely to the choice of the church itself.  And we find that in actual practice churches range all the way from those that remain entirely unrelated to any other, to the other extreme of those that subject themselves to some hierarchy of denominational overlords who own the property and send the minister. . . .
    When our Lord prayed for unity, "that they may all be one" (John 17:21), it was primarily a spiritual unity, a oneness of heart and faith, of love and obedience, of true believers, and only secondarily a unity of ecclesiastical organization, that He had in mind, as is made clear by the fact that He illustrated that unity by the relationship which exists between Himself and the Father--"even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee."  Unity of faith must be achieved before there can be unity of organization.  The ideal, of course, would be for the church to be one in both faith and organization.  But it is clearly not yet ready for that.  Much work remains to be done in teaching God's Word before that can be accomplished.  As Christians become more closely united in doctrine they work together more harmoniously and want to be united more closely in organization.  But unity of doctrine must always remain primary, for that relates to the very purpose for which the church was founded.  The alleged tragedy of disunity of organization is more than offset by the real tragedy of disunity of doctrine that results when conservative and modernistic churches are combined in one organization. . . .
   And after all perhaps the diversity of churches, with a healthy spirit of rivalry within proper limits, is one of God's ways of keeping the stream of Christianity from becoming stagnant.  History is quite clear in showing that where there has been enforced uniformity the church has stagnated, whether in Italy, Spain, France, or Latin America.  The confinement of religious life to a dead level of uniformity does not solve our problems.

This is no less than a blatant abandonment of presbyterian ideas regarding the nature and unity of the church for an explicit semi-congregationalism, at least in the first and third paragraphs.  The second paragraph seems to affirm that churches ought to work towards organizational unity, but he contradicts this sentiment in both the first and the third paragraphs where he asserts that there is no real biblical reason to have catholic organizational unity.  Even in his second paragraph, he seems to lean towards the "Yeah, that's the ideal but it's not realistic right now" kind of attitude that makes many theoretical presbyterians feel comfortable ignoring the implications of denominational division.  (I've discussed this here and here.)

My other example of the day comes from an anonymous correspondent, a pastor in a conservative American Presbyterian denomination.  This statement was made in the context of a discussion over what the Bible requires regarding homeschooling:

So, many of these things come down to one's conscience before God and His Word. Prayerfully, they are in a church community that will help them answer those questions and will show love even if they disagree. This is why we have different churches and different denominations (pluralformity) because we all have different beliefs of what is right or wrong according to our informed consciences. That is why Paul does not offer details in many questions but emphasizes love, patience, longsuffering, gentleness, against which there is no law.

Ugh!  These comments show how the sort of indifferentism which has come to full flower in our modern Agnostic western culture and is here manifested at a much weaker level contributes towards the abandonment of the historic Reformed presbyterian view of the unity of the church.  "We can't have just one catholic visible church!  Why, people have different opinions that must be respected!  It's not like there's one Bible we've been given which teaches one set of truths that we are all obligated to believe and practice whether we like it or not!  Oh wait . . ."

Despite the opinions of Boettner and my anonymous correspondent, the Bible and the Westminster Standards are quite clear that there is to be one catholic visible church, that unity between de jure churches in a single, overarching presbyterian structure is not an optional thing, that agreement in the truth is a good thing and diversity in belief over things the Bible teaches is bad, and that denominational division is not simply a convenient way of doing church but is a manifestation of sinful schism in the Body of Christ.  See here, here, and here for more on these things, and see here for evidence that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, despite the semi-congregationalism of some of her members and ministers, officially embraces a more biblical presbyterianism.

A Bit of Critical Commentary on Stephen Meyer's Argument for Intelligent Design

I've been reading Stephen Meyer's new book arguing against Darwinian evolution and in favor of Intelligent Design.

The majority of the book focuses on criticizing neo-Darwinian evolution (and some materialistic alternatives to it that have been suggested as well) as an explanation for the origin of new animal life (focusing particularly on the Cambrian Explosion).  So far as I am competent to judge (which is only to a limited degree), I think Meyer does a fantastic job here.  His critique is extremely thorough and detailed, apparently leaving no stone unturned (at least of all the stones we currently know about).  He does a wonderful job of being fair in stating as strongly as possible the opposing points of view and the arguments used to support them before offering a fantastically detailed rebuttal of them.  The book has definitely reinforced my suspicion that neo-Darwinism simply doesn't and can't work as a mechanism for explaining the forms of life that exist.

The last part of Meyer's book is devoted to defending Intelligent Design as the best explanation for the origin of the Cambrian forms of life and new animal life in general (his book assumes a standard mainstream scientific view of the age of the earth and the fossil record).  I think he makes a very worthwhile case in this part as well.  However, I would like to offer some further thoughts on and even some criticism of Meyer's positive case for ID.

Meyer affirms that ID is the best explanation for the Cambrian animals, and animals in general, arising in history, on the grounds that while we never see materialistic (unintelligent) causes producing complex specified information such as we see in living things, we often see intelligent agents producing such information.  Thus, Meyer believes he can make a pretty straightforward uniformitarian-type affirmation:  We should look for causes operating today to explain past events.  Only intelligent causes can be seen acting today to produce new complex specified information (such as is found in buildings, computers, etc.).  Therefore, it makes the most uniformitarian sense to invoke intelligent causation as the best explanation for new animal life.  This argument definitely has some significant plausibility.  It is certainly a scientific argument worthy of careful consideration.

However, I have a few concerns with the argument:

1. First of all, it is certainly true that non-intelligent processes are not known to be able to produce the kind of complex specified information seen in living things.  In fact, as Meyer has shown well (so far as I can tell), they seem utterly inept at producing such information.  It is also true that, in our regular experience, only intelligent agents are known to be able to produce such complex specified information.  Meyer compares his inference to ID to explain animal life to the inferences to humans in the past archaeologists often make when explaining various ancient artifacts (like the Rosetta Stone).

However, in my opinion, Meyer does not take adequately into account a significant difference between the inferences of archaeologists to earlier human conscious activity and his inference to an intelligent designer to explain aspects of living systems.  In the first case, everyone agrees that there were conscious agents living in the past who were humans like us who tend to produce things like the sorts of artifacts we often find buried in the ground.  We all accept previous human history before our time, so we all acknowledge that there were humans in the past we can draw on to explain artifacts that appear to have been intelligently designed.  In addition, the artifacts archaeologists typically find are obvious built for use by human beings, and often for purposes that are at least somewhat apparent.  For example, if an archaeologist finds a necklace buried in the ground which could fit around a human neck, it is not a big jump to assign the creation of that necklace to a human being living in the past.  Or if we find pottery, it is not a big jump to recognize that humans often make containers to put things in and therefore to assume that that sort of activity explains the pottery.  Or when we find writing, we know that we ourselves use writing to communicate and so it is natural to assume that previous humans produced the writings we find in the ground (and this is augmented when we can read the writings and see that they deal with subjects we modern humans are quite familiar with).

When it comes to life, however, it is evident that human agency cannot be the explanation for its existence.  We ourselves are a part of the group of "living things" that needs to be explained.  Therefore, in this case, we have no known agents acknowledged by everyone to exist that can be appealed to to explain the origin of living things.  To appeal to intelligent causality to explain the origin of living things, we have to bring in more controversial beings such as advanced aliens, gods, God, etc.  The fact that such beings are more controversial makes the inference to their agency significantly more of a stretch than an archaeologist's appeal to ancient human agency to explain pottery, etc.  This additional stretch weakens, to some degree, the force of the argument.  It may still be the case that ID is a better explanation than non-intelligent material explanations, but the argument is nowhere near as evident or strong in this case than it is when archaeologists appeal to human agency.

Bringing in non-human intelligent causation requires the raising of a whole host of new questions and issues that have to be addressed, such as the question of the plausibility of there being non-human intelligent agents capable of supplying the agency required to produce the information in living things.  For example, let's look at the idea that the non-human agency involved in producing living things on earth may have been supplied by advanced aliens.  Positing such a thing requires an appraisal of the probabilities involved in the idea of alien life visiting earth and producing living things on it (and doing this perhaps a number of times over billions of years in a systematic sort of way, considering that--assuming a mainstream scientific view of the age of the earth and the fossil record--various living things have appeared in history at different times over very long stretches of time).  How plausible is it that advanced alien intelligent life exists in the universe?  How plausible is it that such beings would have been able to get to earth?  How plausible is it that they would have even wanted to get to earth (motivation is a relevant and unavoidable issue when appealing to intelligent agency)?  How plausible is it that these beings would have been able to produce living things on earth?  Why would they do this over perhaps a period of billions of years, without showing any other signs of their existence?  And so on.  I do not point to these and other such questions to suggest that they cannot in principle be answered, but to point out that they have to be asked.  An ID proponent cannot simply shrug these questions off for further research, for the plausibility of the ID argument to a significant degree depends upon the answers to these kinds of questions (assuming that advanced alien life forms were the intelligent designers).

2. If the intelligent designer of life on earth was advanced aliens, then it is a safe inference that these aliens, being physical, material, finite beings like us, would exhibit the same basic sort of complexity that life on earth exhibits and which requires us to seek an explanation for it.  In other words, if life on earth had to have been designed by a prior intelligence, that prior intelligence (if it fits in a category like "advanced aliens") would also need to have been designed by another intelligence prior to it.  And that prior intelligence (assuming more "advanced aliens") would need to have been designed by another intelligence prior to it, and so on and on ad infinitum.  But an infinite regress of intelligences creating future intelligences leaves us with no ultimate explanation for intelligence at all, for infinite regresses do not explain the origin of anything but simply keep pushing the problem back forever without ever resolving it.  So it would seem that the logic of the ID inference would preclude advanced aliens from being the final explanation for the origin of the information in living systems on earth.  Therefore, the logic of ID inherently requires something beyond advanced aliens.

In fact, the only way to avoid such an infinite regress attaching to the ID inference is to end up positing the classical theistic God.  Only such a being has the properties necessary to avoid having to be traced back to a prior explanation.  (See my book, Why Christianity is True, and particularly the chapter on "God", for arguments to that effect.)  What causes Meyer and others to see a need to appeal to intelligent causation to explain living systems is their specified complexity--that is, the fact that they are complex, information-rich systems with parts geared towards functioning together to support the common system, systems of such complexity and possessing such highly specified information that it is not realistic to expect blind processes to hit upon them.  Intelligence is appealed to because intelligent agents have the ability to envision such systems and then to manipulate the physical world to instantiate in it the systems they envision in their minds.  Intelligent agents can provide complex specified information.

The real issue here is the unified diversity of living systems.  Whenever there is a system--that is, a unified whole made up of interacting parts, such a system must be explained by reference to a prior more unified reality from which it is derived.  This is a key argument in a case for the existence of God:

The material universe appears as an interacting system, and therefore as a unit, consisting of several parts.  Hence there must be a unitary Agent that mediates the interaction of the various parts or is the dynamic ground of their being.  (Louis  Berkhof, Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941], p. 26--referring to an argument by B. P. Bowne)

God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.  (Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 2 vols. [1853; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979], I: 333--quoted in this article)

(See also the aforementioned chapter on "God" in my book, as well as this earlier blog post.)

Atheists, obviously, don't accept the existence of God.  So how do they explain the interacting diversity of parts that make up the universe?  Well, they do so in different ways.  One way some of them do it is to appeal to a unified reality from which all this diverse reality is derived.  This unified reality differs from the classical theistic God in that it is deemed to be impersonal rather than personal.  In short, what is envisioned is a single, undifferentiated, indivisible, impersonal (that is, not possessing consciousness) reality from which all is derived.  This is thought to explain the diversity-in-unity of the universe.

I would argue, as I do in my book, that such an impersonal unified reality is not sufficient to explain the universe we live in because our universe is full of consciousness and there is no explanation for consciousness in a non-conscious ultimate reality.  Thus, to explain the unity-in-diversity as well as the existence of consciousness in our universe, we must posit an ultimate, supreme being who is both absolutely unified and indivisible (simple) as well as conscious--namely, God.  Therefore, the ID inference ultimately requires and leads to the idea of the classical theistic God.

3. The reason this is a problem for ID argumentation is that ID proponents typically want to say that the ID argument is distinct from "religious" arguments for the existence of God.  They want to distance ID from being just a particular instance of a larger battle between theism and atheism.  They want to say that the ID argument is a scientific argument and not a philosophical argument, and that one need not be a theist to accept the reasoning of the argument.  But it is impossible to separate the ID inference from this larger theist-atheist argument.

For example, take the atheist argument mentioned above--that the universe can be explained by appealing to a non-conscious, unified ultimate reality.  While I would argue that such an explanation fails because it does not account for consciousness, this argument of mine as well as the atheist response to it are philosophical in nature and not scientific (assuming a view of things that sees these two methods of inquiry as distinct).  If we assume a naturalistic philosophy, there is no problem explaining the universe by means of an ultimately impersonal reality.  And this allows the naturalist to escape the force of the ID inference.  If Meyer argues that living systems require an intelligent designer because of their specified complexity, an atheist/naturalist could respond in this way:  "The entire universe is full of complex specified information.  The universe is a system of interacting parts which requires a single, unified source to explain it.  That explanation is the single, undifferentiated, impersonal reality (perhaps the state of the universe before the Big Bang) that gave rise to everything else.  The real issue is explaining systems that have parts that are oriented towards each other to function together as a complete system.  Explaining such systems doesn't require intelligence; it simply requires that a system be derived from a more ultimate unified reality.  Living systems are just one example among many of specified complexity in the universe.  If the entire universe as a whole does not need an intelligent designer, but simply an impersonal unified source, then life can be explained the same way.  Living systems are simply one aspect of the diversity-in-unity of the universe that is explained by tracing the universe back to a more ultimate, unified, impersonal state."

Such an explanation is certainly not Darwinian.  Darwinism assumes that life is not pre-programmed into the universe, but has to evolve by means of chance events combined with orderly processes like natural selection.  This alternative atheist argument I've just articulated assumes, rather, that life is pre-programmed into the universe, so that the origin and development of life is not due to chance, but it denies the need to explain such "pre-programming" by means of intelligent agency.  Instead, it explains the pre-programming by means of an ultimate, unified, impersonal state of reality from which the diversity of space and time are derived.  An analogy may help here:  Imagine a pattern etched into a rock by non-intelligent forces such as wind, rain, etc., acting over time.  If that rock were to be broken into pieces, the pieces would still fit together.  They would be oriented towards each other, not by chance, but by a "pre-programming" originating in the fact that the rock was once whole.  We need not bring in intelligent agency to explain the fact that the parts go together and form a unified system that transcends what chance could produce.  We need only appeal to the unified origin of the parts of the rock.  Similarly, an atheist could look at how the universe exhibits diversity-in-unity that transcends what chance could produce, and he could see life as a built-in manifestation of that diversity-in-unity, "pre-programmed" into the universe, and explain it all not by reference to intelligent agency but to the universe being derived from an impersonal, unified, ultimate reality. In fact, he might argue on philosophical grounds that the idea of God is highly implausible or even impossible, and thus that some impersonal ultimate reality is either necessary or at least highly likely.

As I mentioned earlier, I think there are fatal flaws in this way of explaining the universe, but my arguments here would not be scientific but philosophical.  There is no way to make a non-philosophical, scientific argument that exposes the flaws in this reasoning.  Therefore, while I think that Meyer has (so far as I can tell) successfully made a good scientific case against neo-Darwinian mechanisms and other materialistic mechanisms relying to a great degree on chance being able to explain the specified complexity of living systems, I don't think he has made a truly compelling scientific case for ID as the best explanation for such specified complexity.  His case begs the question, because it assumes a theistic rather than an atheistic philosophical system and is dependent on theistic philosophy for its strength without acknowledging this assumption and dependence.  Meyer cannot fully establish his ID inference without delving into the broader philosophical arguments between theists and atheists, and so since his argument is presented as a scientific and not a philosophical argument, it is ultimately question-begging.  (On the other hand, if it were presented as a philosophical argument, it would reveal itself ultimately to be simply another example of classic argumentation for the existence of God such as that of historic monotheistic theologians and philosophers.)