Friday, November 28, 2014

John Anderson on How Latitudinarianism Implies an Abandonment of the Truth

Great comments below from John Anderson (from his book Alexander and Rufus, or A Series of Dialogues on Church Communion in Two Parts, published in 1820, p. 24) which point out well the incompatibility between latitudinarianism in practice and the upholding of the whole counsel of God's Word.

You say, that a christian cannot surrender the least tittle of truth which he believes to be the testimony of his God; or do any act which implies such a surrender.  And, is it not as unlawful for a particular church, in her ecclesiastical capacity, to surrender any part of that which she hath received, and which she professes as a truth of God's word?  Surely, it is no less unlawful.  But a church may be justly said to surrender any such part of her profession, when she does not hold it fast.  And, it is evident, that she does not hold it fast, when she admits the avowed opposers of it to her sacramental communion: for, in doing so, she in effect tells them and the world, that she does not account their opposition to that article any moral evil, nor the holding of it any duty.  She does not require her members to hold it; and, therefore, she must be considered as dropping or surrendering it.  For an article, which a church does not require her members to hold, may, indeed, be the private persuasion of individuals, but is no longer any part of her public profession.

See here for some comments from OPC ruling elder Bryan Holstrom making this same argument in the context of the OPC's toleration of baptist members.  See here for a general critique of latitudinarianism.

John Anderson on Lawful and Unlawful Sections of the Catholic Church

The selection below is from John Anderson's book Alexander and Rufus, or A Series of Dialogues on Church Communion in Two Parts, published in 1820, pp. 7-8.  In it, Anderson argues that a denomination existing to preserve false doctrine does not possess ecclesiastical legitimacy as a separate body and so should not be joined with in communion, while any denomination which exists in order to preserve the catholic truths of the Word of God does possess legitimacy and it is right to join with them in communion.

The catholic church comprehends all that profess the true religion.  There is a lawful and necessary division of it into sections in respect of local situation.  But when a number of people, bearing the christian name, combine together as a distinct society, for the purpose of maintaining and propagating doctrines and practices, which, instead of belonging to the true religion, are contrary to it; they ought not, considered as such a combination, to be called a lawful section of the catholic church.  It is not denied, that they belong to the catholic church; but it is denied, that there ought to be any such section or division in it.  Thus, there ought to be no section of the catholic church, having for the peculiar end of its distinct subsistence, the support of an episcopal hierarchy, unknown in the scripture, or the propagation of antipaedobaptism, or of antiscriptural doctrine, in opposition to that of God's election, redemption, effectual calling and the conservation of his people, as delivered in the scripture; or for the support of ways and means of divine worship not found in scripture.  If the catholic visible church were brought to a suitable discharge of her duty, she would abolish all such sections.  But no society ought to be called such an unlawful section, while it can be shewn that it subsists as a separate society for no other end, than for the maintaining of something in the doctrine, worship or government of the church which belongs to the christian religion as delivered in the word of God, or for exhibiting a testimony against prevailing errors and corruptions which the scripture requires the catholic church to condemn.  Such a profession of any party of christians is no sectarian profession; and an union with them is not a sectarian, but properly a christian union; and, being cordial and sincere, is a union in Christ; and communion upon the ground of this union is truly christian communion.  On the other hand, however much of our holy religion any body of christians hold in common with others, and however many of them we may charitably judge to be saints, yet while their distinguishing profession is contrary to the word of God, communion with them as a body so distinguished, is sectarian communion; as it implies a union with them in that which ought to be rejected by the whole catholic church.

For more, see here and here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rev. Michael Ives on Parish Evangelism

I wanted to recommend an article by Rev. Michael Ives.  The article is called "Parish Evangelism: Rediscovering Focus in Evangelistic and Pastoral Effort."  It is a very interesting call to return to a more parish-focused model of church ministry.  I think his thoughts warrant careful consideration.  There is definitely something to be said for re-implementing, to some degree, a more region-based, local concept of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, both in terms of the church's ministry to members as well as to non-members and non-Christians.  He's also written about this here (starting on p. 9).

Rev. Ives is minister of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

John T. Pressly on Church Fellowship

I've mentioned Rev. John T. Pressly's article on Church Fellowship in a couple of other places on this blog, but I wanted to make a more up-front recommendation of it.  Rev. Pressly was a United Presbyterian minister, and the article was published in 1865.  It is one of my favorite articles on the church, as it very clearly and succinctly articulates a biblical perspective regarding the adoption of creeds, the requirements of church membership, the error of latitudinarianism, the meaning of denominational separation, and the principles of church fellowship given the fact of denominational divisions.  His clear articulations shed much light on these issues.  I don't agree with everything he says, and some of his article focuses on some things peculiar to the United Presbyterian denomination of his time, but, overall, I think his article is enormously helpful in providing clarification on the principles of the unity and authority of the church and how to understand these things in an age of widespread denominational division.

So enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Does My Regional Presbytery Not Include All the Churches in the Region?

I recently came across an article by Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Much of the article is problematic as it adopts a strong latitudinarian point of view, but he also makes a few comments that point out the real meaning of denominational separation in a Presbyterian context:

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” “I believe in the holy catholic church.” What can that possibly mean? I am a Presbyterian; I believe that when Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he was really writing to all the churches there. But when I go to my presbytery meeting, who’s there? The churches just like us, that’s who. No Baptists, no Lutherans, no Pentecostals—yes, no Catholics either. . . .

It’s easy to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate: “this is how we’re right and they’re wrong. What makes us special is how we’re different.” It’s a lot harder to do a seminar where everyone talks and I have to listen. What if what really makes us special is that we’re good listeners? What if we can hear God’s Word better in what others are saying, than in listening to ourselves talk? What if we want our presbytery, at least one of our presbyteries, to be all the churches within a couple miles of us?

Dr. Davis highlights the reality that the delineations of a presbytery are regional.  There is one catholic church, and all churches are to function in mutual submission to each other, and this is manifested regionally by the union of local churches in a presbytery.  Thus, the presbytery should include all local churches.  But, of course, the reality is that the professing Christian world is denominationally divided.  In the Salt Lake City area, where I live, there is an OPC, several PCAs, Lutheran churches, Anglican churches, Romanists, Eastern Orthodox, Latter-day Saints, etc., etc.  And yet the OPC church is part of the Presbytery of the Dakotas, which consists of all the OPC (and none other) churches within a larger geographical area.  The PCA, etc., are similarly divided from the other groups.

So if the presbytery includes all local churches, what does it mean when local churches are not united in one presbytery?  It means that at least those churches that acknowledge the duty of churches to be united in formal communion and mutual submission do not recognize the legitimacy and authority of the churches they are not in communion with.

Though Dr. Davis seems to lean strongly towards latitudinarianism, he does a service by using clear language to bring out the true meaning of denominational separation, a meaning that too many in the modern Reformed world seem to want to avoid seeing clearly.

For more, see here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thomas M'Crie against Denominationalism

Thomas M'Crie's justly famous work, The Unity of the Church, is an excellent treatise on church union and communion and schism, both in terms of laying out the theoretical principles and giving good practical advice.

I've already referred to and quoted M'Crie in my article on latitudinarianism (see the end of the article for an extended quotation) with regard to his opposition to that idea (latitudinarianism being the concept that the church ought to refrain from maintaining unity and discipline within itself over Scriptural doctrines and principles that are considered "less important" than other ones).  Immediately after his attack on latitudinarianism, M'Crie attacks another unscriptural method of trying to preserve the unity of the church:

Another plan of communion, apparently opposite to the former, but proceeding on the same general principle, has been zealously recommended, and in some instances reduced to practice, in the present day. According to it, the several religious parties are allowed to remain separate, and to preserve their distinct constitution and peculiarities, while a species of partial or occasional communion is established among them. This plan is liable to all the objections which lie against the former, with the addition of another that is peculiar to itself. It is inconsistent and self-contradictory. It strikes against the radical principles of the unity of the Church, and confirms schism by law: while it provides that the parties shall remain separate, at the same time that it proceeds on the supposition that there is no scriptural or conscientious ground of difference between them.

By defending such occasional conformity, English Dissenters at a former period contradicted the reasons of their dissent from the establishment, and exposed themselves to their opponents: for where communion is lawful, it will not be easy to vindicate separation from the charge of schism. The world has for some time beheld annually the spectacle of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Independents, Methodists, and Seceders, sitting down together at the Lord's table, and then going away and maintaining communion, through the remainder of the year, on their own separate and contradictory professions. Nay, it has of late become the practice to keep, in the same church, an open communion table for Christians of different denominations on one part of the day, and a close one for those of a particular sect on the other part of the day; while the same ministers officiate, and many individuals communicate, on both these occasions. And all this is cried up as a proof of liberality, and a mind that has freed itself from the trammels of party.[9]
It is difficult to say which of these plans is most objectionable [that is, latitudinarianism or the idea he has just been describing]. By the former, that church which is most faithful, and has made the greatest progress in reformation, must always be the loser, without having the satisfaction to think that she has conveyed any benefit to her new associates. It behoves her profession and managements to yield, and be reduced to the standard of those societies which are defective and less reformed. And thus, by a process opposite to that mentioned by the Apostle, those who have built on the foundation "gold, silver, precious stones," are the persons who shall "suffer loss" (1 Cor. 3:12, 15). By the latter, all the good effects which might be expected from warrantable and necessary separations are lost, without the compensation of a rational and effective conjunction; purity of communion is endangered; persons are encouraged to continue in connection with the most corrupt churches; and a faithful testimony against errors and abuses, with all consistent attempts to have them removed or prevented, is held up to odium and reproach, as dictated by bigotry, and as tending to revive old dissensions, and to defeat the delightful prospect of those halcyon days of peace which are anticipated under the reign of mutual forbearance and charity. 

What M'Crie attacks here is that very same semi-congregationalism or denominationalism that has infiltrated so much of Reformed thinking these days.  "We don't need to be united.  We can just continue to exist as one, big, happy group of independent Reformed denominations, getting along nicely and working together without having to be in mutual submission to each other."  The problem, as M'Crie points out, is that it "strikes against the radical principles of the unity of the Church, and confirms schism by law."  If two denominations--say, the PCA and the OPC--are close enough that they can accept each other as legitimate churches, with legitimate ministries, to whom it is appropriate to recommend people for membership, etc., then they ought to be united in one denomination, for it is schism for them to continue divided.  If, on the other hand, there is warrant for continued separation, they must regard each other as having something wrong with them which warrants refusing to recognize their authority by being in mutual submission to them in common councils.  If the OPC, for example, regards the PCA as being in a bad enough state to warrant remaining separate from them, they ought not at the same time to be approving their ministry, recommending people to them for membership, or in general treating them like a good, legitimate, non-schismatic, Reformed church, for this attitude and practice undermines the claim to have a basis for continued separation.

I am reminded of James Durham's comments from his famous work, Concerning Scandal:  "[B]y way of precept there is an absolute necessity of uniting laid upon the church, so that it falls not under debate ‘Whether a church should continue divided or united . . .' more than it falls under debate whether there should be preaching, praying, keeping of the Sabbath, or any other commanded duty."  Therefore, two churches accepting each other as legitimate and as having authority must be united to avoid meriting the charge of acting schismatically.

The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has articulated the right attitude regarding the implications of denominational separation:

The Synod . . . desires to state that in terms of its Constitution, this Church has taken up a separate position from other Churches in Scotland in order to maintain a testimony to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures as the Word of God and in order to adhere in its practice to that Word as its supreme standard, and to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is based upon the Scripture, as its subordinate standard. This separate position is justified because, and only as long as, it is necessary.

Accordingly, conduct giving the impression that there is no obstacle to association with other Churches undermines the necessity for a separate position and is therefore inconsistent with loyal adherence to the Free Presbyterian Church, and is consequently disapproved of by this Church.

So what does this mean for how individuals ought to relate to denominations that are wrongfully separate from the FPCS (which is to say all other denominations, for there is no just ground of separation from the FPCS, for otherwise it would not have a right itself to separate existence)?  The FPCS catechism makes this clear:

146 Q. When should individual believers separate from the fellowship of others?
A. The Scriptures enjoin believers to withdraw themselves from those who are professed brethren and who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), so when men have so rejected sound doctrine, right government, and discipline, or have introduced superstitious worship, or are maintaining a schismatic position, and when an orderly correction of these evils fails, then believers are to separate from such.

There may still be informal fellowship, but there must not be the kind of formal connection which would imply that there is no reason for continued denominational separation, for, as M'Crie said, "where communion is lawful, it will not be easy to vindicate separation from the charge of schism."

For more, see here, here, and here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

John Locke's Argument for the Existence of God

Below is Chapter X of John Locke's famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke makes an argument for the existence of God.  This is one of the best succinct arguments for God's existence I have yet come across, better even in my opinion than some of the more famous cases, such as that of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa TheologicaI don't agree with everything Locke has to say, but I think much of what he has to say is both valid and very well articulated.  I particularly like points 1 through 6, where Locke lays out a very basic argument.  In the rest of the points, he goes back and elaborates on particular aspects of what he has already laid out.  I also like point 10, where Locke elaborates on why consciousness cannot be derived from non-consciousness.

Locke comments on the Ontological argument in point 7.  My own thoughts on that argument can be found here.  Also, Locke's discussion of the relationship of matter to thought may be illuminated by an examination of Idealism.

The version below is the one found on the Era of Great Voyages website.  I've altered the spacing between paragraphs a bit and removed the headings to each point.


1. Though God has given us no innate ideas of himself; though he has stamped no original characters on our minds, wherein we may read his being; yet having furnished us with those faculties our minds are endowed with, he hath not left himself without witness: since we have sense, perception, and reason, and cannot want a clear proof of him, as long as we carry ourselves about us. Nor can we justly complain of our ignorance in this great point; since he has so plentifully provided us with the means to discover and know him; so far as is necessary to the end of our being, and the great concernment of our happiness. But, though this be the most obvious truth that reason discovers, and though its evidence be (if I mistake not) equal to mathematical certainty: yet it requires thought and attention; and the mind must apply itself to a regular deduction of it from some part of our intuitive knowledge, or else we shall be as uncertain and ignorant of this as of other propositions, which are in themselves capable of clear demonstration. To show, therefore, that we are capable of knowing, i.e. being certain that there is a God, and how we may come by this certainty, I think we need go no further than ourselves, and that undoubted knowledge we have of our own existence.

2. I think it is beyond question, that man has a clear idea of his own being; he knows certainly he exists, and that he is something. He that can doubt whether he be anything or no, I speak not to; no more than I would argue with pure nothing, or endeavour to convince nonentity that it were something. If any one pretends to be so sceptical as to deny his own existence, (for really to doubt of it is manifestly impossible,) let him for me enjoy his beloved happiness of being nothing, until hunger or some other pain convince him of the contrary. This, then, I think I may take for a truth, which every one's certain knowledge assures him of, beyond the liberty of doubting, viz. that he is something that actually exists.

3. In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles. If a man knows not that nonentity, or the absence of all being, cannot be equal to two right angles, it is impossible he should know any demonstration in Euclid. If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

4. Next, it is evident, that what had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too. All the powers it has must be owing to and received from the same source. This eternal source, then, of all being must also be the source and original of all power; and so this eternal Being must be also the most powerful.

5. Again, a man finds in himself perception and knowledge. We have then got one step further; and we are certain now that there is not only some being, but some knowing, intelligent being in the world. There was a time, then, when there was no knowing being, and when knowledge began to be; or else there has been also a knowing being from eternity. If it be said, there was a time when no being had any knowledge, when that eternal being was void of all understanding; I reply, that then it was impossible there should ever have been any knowledge: it being as impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones. For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should put into itself greater angles than two right ones.

6. Thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth,- That there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not. The thing is evident; and from this idea duly considered, will easily be deduced all those other attributes, which we ought to ascribe to this eternal Being. If, nevertheless, any one should be found so senselessly arrogant, as to suppose man alone knowing and wise, but yet the product of mere ignorance and chance; and that all the rest of the universe acted only by that blind haphazard; I shall leave with him that very rational and emphatical rebuke of Tully (I. ii. De Leg.), to be considered at his leisure: "What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think that he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing? Or that those things, which with the utmost stretch of his reason he can scarce comprehend, should be moved and managed without any reason at all?" Quid est enim verius, quam neminem esse oportere tam stulte arrogantem, ut in se mentem et rationem putet inesse, in caelo mundoque non putet? Aut ea quae vix summa ingenii ratione comprehendat, nulla ratione moveri putet?

From what has been said, it is plain to me we have a more certain knowledge of the existence of a God, than of anything our senses have not immediately discovered to us. Nay, I presume I may say, that we more certainly know that there is a God, than that there is anything else without us. When I say we know, I mean there is such a knowledge within our reach which we cannot miss, if we will but apply our minds to that, as we do to several other inquiries.

7. How far the idea of a most perfect being, which a man may frame in his mind, does or does not prove the existence of a God, I will not here examine. For in the different make of men's tempers and application of their thoughts, some arguments prevail more on one, and some on another, for the confirmation of the same truth. But yet, I think, this I may say, that it is an ill way of establishing this truth, and silencing atheists, to lay the whole stress of so important a point as this upon that sole foundation: and take some men's having that idea of God in their minds, (for it is evident some men have none, and some worse than none, and the most very different,) for the only proof of a Deity; and out of an over fondness of that darling invention, cashier, or at least endeavour to invalidate all other arguments; and forbid us to hearken to those proofs, as being weak or fallacious, which our own existence, and the sensible parts of the universe offer so clearly and cogently to our thoughts, that I deem it impossible for a considering man to withstand them. For I judge it as certain and clear a truth as can anywhere be delivered, that "the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead." Though our own being furnishes us, as I have shown, with an evident and incontestable proof of a Deity; and I believe nobody can avoid the cogency of it, who will but as carefully attend to it, as to any other demonstration of so many parts: yet this being so fundamental a truth, and of that consequence, that all religion and genuine morality depend thereon, I doubt not but I shall be forgiven by my reader if I go over some parts of this argument again, and enlarge a little more upon them.

8. There is no truth more evident than that something must be from eternity. I never yet heard of any one so unreasonable, or that could suppose so manifest a contradiction, as a time wherein there was perfectly nothing. This being of all absurdities the greatest, to imagine that pure nothing, the perfect negation and absence of all beings, should ever produce any real existence.

It being, then, unavoidable for all rational creatures to conclude, that something has existed from eternity; let us next see what kind of thing that must be.

9. There are but two sorts of beings in the world that man knows or conceives.

First, such as are purely material, without sense, perception, or thought, as the clippings of our beards, and parings of our nails.

Secondly, sensible, thinking, perceiving beings, such as we find ourselves to be. Which, if you please, we will hereafter call cogitative and incogitative beings; which to our present purpose, if for nothing else, are perhaps better terms than material and immaterial.

10. If, then, there must be something eternal, let us see what sort of being it must be. And to that it is very obvious to reason, that it must necessarily be a cogitative being. For it is as impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative matter should produce a thinking intelligent being, as that nothing should of itself produce matter. Let us suppose any parcel of matter eternal, great or small, we shall find it, in itself, able to produce nothing. For example: let us suppose the matter of the next pebble we meet with eternal, closely united, and the parts firmly at rest together; if there were no other being in the world, must it not eternally remain so, a dead inactive lump? Is it possible to conceive it can add motion to itself, being purely matter, or produce anything? Matter, then, by its own strength, cannot produce in itself so much as motion: the motion it has must also be from eternity, or else be produced, and added to matter by some other being more powerful than matter; matter, as is evident, having not power to produce motion in itself. But let us suppose motion eternal too: yet matter, incogitative matter and motion, whatever changes it might produce of figure and bulk, could never produce thought: knowledge will still be as far beyond the power of motion and matter to produce, as matter is beyond the power of nothing or nonentity to produce. And I appeal to every one's own thoughts, whether he cannot as easily conceive matter produced by nothing, as thought to be produced by pure matter, when, before, there was no such thing as thought or an intelligent being existing? Divide matter into as many parts as you will, (which we are apt to imagine a sort of spiritualizing, or making a thinking thing of it,) vary the figure and motion of it as much as you please- a globe, cube, cone, prism, cylinder, &c., whose diameters are but 100,000th part of a gry, will operate no otherwise upon other bodies of proportionable bulk, than those of an inch or foot diameter; and you may as rationally expect to produce sense, thought, and knowledge, by putting together, in a certain figure and motion, gross particles of matter, as by those that are the very minutest that do anywhere exist. They knock, impel, and resist one another, just as the greater do; and that is all they can do. So that, if we will suppose nothing first or eternal, matter can never begin to be: if we suppose bare matter without motion, eternal, motion can never begin to be: if we suppose only matter and motion first, or eternal, thought can never begin to be. For it is impossible to conceive that matter, either with or without motion, could have, originally, in and from itself, sense, perception, and knowledge; as is evident from hence, that then sense, perception, and knowledge, must be a property eternally inseparable from matter and every particle of it. Not to add, that, though our general or specific conception of matter makes us speak of it as one thing, yet really all matter is not one individual thing, neither is there any such thing existing as one material being, or one single body that we know or can conceive. And therefore, if matter were the eternal first cogitative being, there would not be one eternal, infinite, cogitative being, but an infinite number of eternal, finite, cogitative beings, independent one of another, of limited force, and distinct thoughts, which could never produce that order, harmony, and beauty which are to be found in nature. Since, therefore, whatsoever is the first eternal being must necessarily be cogitative; and whatsoever is first of all things must necessarily contain in it, and actually have, at least, all the perfections that can ever after exist; nor can it ever give to another any perfection that it hath not either actually in itself, or, at least, in a higher degree; it necessarily follows, that the first eternal being cannot be matter.

11. If, therefore, it be evident, that something necessarily must exist from eternity, it is also as evident, that that something must necessarily be a cogitative being: for it is as impossible that incogitative matter should produce a cogitative being, as that nothing, or the negation of all being, should produce a positive being or matter.

12. Though this discovery of the necessary existence of an eternal Mind does sufficiently lead us into the knowledge of God; since it will hence follow, that all other knowing beings that have a beginning must depend on him, and have no other ways of knowledge or extent of power than what he gives them; and therefore, if he made those, he made also the less excellent pieces of this universe,- all inanimate beings, whereby his omniscience, power, and providence will be established, and all his other attributes necessarily follow: yet, to clear up this a little further, we will see what doubts can be raised against it.

13. First, Perhaps it will be said, that, though it be as clear as demonstration can make it, that there must be an eternal Being, and that Being must also be knowing: yet it does not follow but that thinking Being may also be material. Let it be so, it equally still follows that there is a God. For if there be an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent Being, it is certain that there is a God, whether you imagine that Being to be material or no. But herein, I suppose, lies the danger and deceit of that supposition:- there being no way to avoid the demonstration, that there is an eternal knowing Being, men, devoted to matter, would willingly have it granted, that this knowing Being is material; and then, letting slide out of their minds, or the discourse, the demonstration whereby an eternal knowing Being was proved necessarily to exist, would argue all to be matter, and so deny a God, that is, an eternal cogitative Being: whereby they are so far from establishing, that they destroy their own hypothesis. For, if there can be, in their opinion, eternal matter, without any eternal cogitative Being, they manifestly separate matter and thinking, and suppose no necessary connexion of the one with the other, and so establish the necessity of an eternal Spirit, but not of matter; since it has been proved already, that an eternal cogitative Being is unavoidably to be granted. Now, if thinking and matter may be separated, the eternal existence of matter will not follow from the eternal existence of a cogitative Being, and they suppose it to no purpose.

14. But now let us see how they can satisfy themselves, or others, that this eternal thinking Being is material.

I. I would ask them, whether they imagine that all matter, every particle of matter, thinks? This, I suppose, they will scarce say; since then there would be as many eternal thinking beings as there are particles of matter, and so an infinity of gods. And yet, if they will not allow matter as matter, that is, every particle of matter, to be as well cogitative as extended, they will have as hard a task to make out to their own reasons a cogitative being out of incogitative particles, as an extended being out of unextended parts, if I may so speak.

15. II. If all matter does not think, I next ask, Whether it be only one atom that does so? This has as many absurdities as the other; for then this atom of matter must be alone eternal or not. If this alone be eternal, then this alone, by its powerful thought or will, made all the rest of matter. And so we have the creation of matter by a powerful thought, which is that the materialists stick at; for if they suppose one single thinking atom to have produced all the rest of matter, they cannot ascribe that pre-eminency to it upon any other account than that of its thinking, the only supposed difference. But allow it to be by some other way which is above our conception, it must still be creation; and these men must give up their great maxim, Ex nihilo nil fit. If it be said, that all the rest of matter is equally eternal as that thinking atom, it will be to say anything at pleasure, though ever so absurd. For to suppose all matter eternal, and yet one small particle in knowledge and power infinitely above all the rest, is without any the least appearance of reason to frame an hypothesis. Every particle of matter, as matter, is capable of all the same figures and motions of any other; and I challenge any one, in his thoughts, to add anything else to one above another.

16. III. If then neither one peculiar atom alone can be this eternal thinking being; nor all matter, as matter, i.e. every particle of matter, can be it; it only remains, that it is some certain system of matter, duly put together, that is this thinking eternal Being. This is that which, I imagine, is that notion which men are aptest to have of God; who would have him a material being, as most readily suggested to them by the ordinary conceit they have of themselves and other men, which they take to be material thinking beings. But this imagination, however more natural, is no less absurd than the other: for to suppose the eternal thinking Being to be nothing else but a composition of particles of matter, each whereof is incogitative, is to ascribe all the wisdom and knowledge of that eternal Being only to the juxta-position of parts; than which nothing can be more absurd. For unthinking particles of matter, however put together, can have nothing thereby added to them, but a new relation of position, which it is impossible should give thought and knowledge to them.

17. But further: this corporeal system either has all its parts at rest, or it is a certain motion of the parts wherein its thinking consists. If it be perfectly at rest, it is but one lump, and so can have no privileges above one atom.

If it be the motion of its parts on which its thinking depends, all the thoughts there must be unavoidably accidental and limited; since all the particles that by motion cause thought, being each of them in itself without any thought, cannot regulate its own motions, much less be regulated by the thought of the whole; since that thought is not the cause of motion, (for then it must be antecedent to it, and so without it,) but the consequence of it; whereby freedom, power, choice, and all rational and wise thinking or acting, will be quite taken away: so that such a thinking being will be no better nor wiser than pure blind matter; since to resolve all into the accidental unguided motions of blind matter, or into thought depending on unguided motions of blind matter, is the same thing: not to mention the narrowness of such thoughts and knowledge that must depend on the motion of such parts. But there needs no enumeration of any more absurdities and impossibilities in this hypothesis (however full of them it be) than that before mentioned; since, let this thinking system be all or a part of the matter of the universe, it is impossible that any one particle should either know its own, or the motion of any other particle, or the whole know the motion of every particle; and so regulate its own thoughts or motions, or indeed have any thought resulting from such motion.

18. Others would have Matter to be eternal, notwithstanding that they allow an eternal, cogitative, immaterial Being. This, though it take not away the being of a God, yet, since it denies one and the first great piece of his workmanship, the creation, let us consider it a little. Matter must be allowed eternal: Why? because you cannot conceive how it can be made out of nothing: why do you not also think yourself eternal? You will answer, perhaps, Because, about twenty or forty years since, you began to be. But if I ask you, what that you is, which began then to be, you can scarce tell me. The matter whereof you are made began not then to be: for if it did, then it is not eternal: but it began to be put together in such a fashion and frame as makes up your body; but yet that frame of particles is not you, it makes not that thinking thing you are; (for I have now to do with one who allows an eternal, immaterial, thinking Being, but would have unthinking Matter eternal too;) therefore, when did that thinking thing begin to be? If it did never begin to be, then have you always been a thinking thing from eternity; the absurdity whereof I need not confute, till I meet with one who is so void of understanding as to own it. If, therefore, you can allow a thinking thing to be made out of nothing, (as all things that are not eternal must be,) why also can you not allow it possible for a material being to be made out of nothing by an equal power, but that you have the experience of the one in view, and not of the other? Though, when well considered, creation of a spirit will be found to require no less power than the creation of matter. Nay, possibly, if we would emancipate ourselves from vulgar notions, and raise our thoughts, as far as they would reach, to a closer contemplation of things, we might be able to aim at some dim and seeming conception how matter might at first be made, and begin to exist, by the power of that eternal first Being: but to give beginning and being to a spirit would be found a more inconceivable effect of omnipotent power. But this being what would perhaps lead us too far from the notions on which the philosophy now in the world is built, it would not be pardonable to deviate so far from them; or to inquire, so far as grammar itself would authorize, if the common settled opinion opposes it: especially in this place, where the received doctrine serves well enough to our present purpose, and leaves this past doubt, that the creation or beginning of any one SUBSTANCE out of nothing being once admitted, the creation of all other but the CREATOR himself, may, with the same ease, be supposed.

19. But you will say, Is it not impossible to admit of the making anything out of nothing, since we cannot possibly conceive it? I answer, No. Because it is not reasonable to deny the power of an infinite being, because we cannot comprehend its operations. We do not deny other effects upon this ground, because we cannot possibly conceive the manner of their production. We cannot conceive how anything but impulse of body can move body; and yet that is not a reason sufficient to make us deny it possible, against the constant experience we have of it in ourselves, in all our voluntary motions; which are produced in us only by the free action or thought of our own minds, and are not, nor can be, the effects of the impulse or determination of the motion of blind matter in or upon our own bodies; for then it could not be in our power or choice to alter it. For example: my right hand writes, whilst my left hand is still: What causes rest in one, and motion in the other? Nothing but my will,- a thought of my mind; my thought only changing, the right hand rests, and the left hand moves. This is matter of fact, which cannot be denied: explain this and make it intelligible, and then the next step will be to understand creation. For the giving a new determination to the motion of the animal spirits (which some make use of to explain voluntary motion) clears not the difficulty one jot. To alter the determination of motion, being in this case no easier nor less, than to give motion itself: since the new determination given to the animal spirits must be either immediately by thought, or by some other body put in their way by thought which was not in their way before, and so must owe its motion to thought: either of which leaves voluntary motion as unintelligible as it was before. In the meantime, it is an overvaluing ourselves to reduce all to the narrow measure of our capacities, and to conclude all things impossible to be done, whose manner of doing exceeds our comprehension. This is to make our comprehension infinite, or God finite, when what He can do is limited to what we can conceive of it. If you do not understand the operations of your own finite mind, that thinking thing within you, do not deem it strange that you cannot comprehend the operations of that eternal infinite Mind, who made and governs all things, and whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain.

No Real Stopping Point between Presbyterianism and Independency

One way to distinguish between independency and presbyterianism is say that independency recognizes no authority beyond the local congregation or between local congregations, while presbyterianism does.  In independency, the elders of one particular congregation (if there are any) have authority in the congregation, but they have no authority that elders or members in other congregations are bound to recognize and submit to.  In presbyterianism, by contrast, elders in one congregation do have authority that elders and members in other congregations are bound to recognize.  From thence arises the authority of presbyteries and higher synods.  American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge put it well:  "The Presbyterian doctrine on this subject is, that the Church is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and the larger to the whole."

There is no real non-arbitrary stopping point between independency and presbyterianism.  I have sometimes spoken of "semi-independency" or "semi-congregationalism" as an in-between point of view, but really it is not.  I have described semi-congregationalism as the view that churches can be united together in "clumps" (denominations) which hold a presbyterian structure of unity and authority within themselves, while the clumps themselves are independent from each other.  But really, if there is no requirement for the clumps to recognize each others' authority, there can be no non-arbitrary reason to think that the churches within each clump are required, intrinsically, to recognize each others' authority either.

Consider this scenario:  Denomination A holds to a presbyterian structure within itself.  It recognizes the legal legitimacy and authority of Denomination B, but it holds that it has no obligation to be united to Denomination B in a mutually-binding presbyterian structure.  The implication of this is that there is nothing about the authority of the elders in Denomination B which requires the recognition and submission of the elders in Denomination A.  But if this is the case, how can there be anything in the authority of the individual sessions and presbyteries of Denomination A which would require the recognition and submission of other sessions and presbyteries within Denomination A?  We can't have it both ways.  Either the authority of elders requires submission from other elders, in which case Denomination A's recognition of authority in Denomination B will morally require Denomination A to join with Denomination B in a presbyterian structure (in other words, they will no longer be two independent denominations), or the authority of elders does not require submission from other elders, in which case the individual sessions and presbyteries within Denomination A will have no intrinsic moral obligation to be united to the other sessions or presbyteries within Denomination A--but this is nothing other than pure independency.  Independency has no problem with churches voluntarily working together; what defines it in distinction from presbyterianism (at least in this regard) is that it does not recognize a moral requirement for churches to function in mutual submission to each other in a presbyterian system.  It would be completely arbitrary for Denomination A to say that its member sessions have an intrinsic moral obligation to be united with other sessions within Denomination A but not with sessions in Denomination B.  So the only conclusion we can draw is that there is no non-arbitrary stopping point between a full presbyterianism which is incompatible with denominationalism and pure independency.

For more, see here and here.

UPDATE 11/24/14:  Given the above, here is something you can do to call out independent thinking in a particular church session:  Ask the session, "Why do you submit to your presbytery?  What is the basis of the authority they have over you?  Is the basis your own voluntary decision to grant them authority over you, or do they have authority simply by virtue of containing legitimate officers and courts of the church of Christ within the same region in which you live?"  If the answer is the former, then the session acknowledges no real intrinsic authority to be possessed by the presbytery as such, in which case the session's view is independency.  If the answer is the latter, then you can ask, "What about the sessions of other denominations in the same region?  Wouldn't they have authority too, to join together with your denomination's sessions in the meetings of presbytery?  On what basis do you exclude them?  And how do you avoid uniting in a common general council with all the other churches in the region, in the nation, and in the world, if church courts and officers, by virtue of their intrinsic authority, are required to be in mutual submission to each other?"

One Truth is Clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."

In my British Literature class on Wednesday, we were referred to a few lines from the Essay on Man by Alexander Pope.  I haven't read the whole thing (though it looks interesting), but I was struck by the lines we were referred to in the class.  I've heard these lines quoted for criticism in the past, but I find them to be a beautiful description of the fact that God "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Ephesians 1:11) and that therefore all things--small and great, good and bad--happen for a reason, to serve the overall purposes of God's great, good, and holy plan.  Evil is truly evil--in its own nature contrary to God's--and yet God allows it and uses it to further his good purposes for his glory and for his people in spite of itself.

Cease then, nor ORDER Imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit -- In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."

Poor Naaman - Lived Too Far Away To Be Considered a True Convert

According to a few people, those who don't live near a local orthodox congregation they can in good conscience become members of have "[cut] themselves off from the visible church and [relinquished] all rights to be considered Christians."  I've commented previously on the unbiblical nature, the un-Reformed nature, and the absurd consequences of this position (no wonder I've only encountered four people in human history so far who have held it).

Last night, in family worship, we came to the story of Naaman, who lived in Syria, Israel's enemy, but became a convert to the true religion (2 Kings 5).

And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came, and stood before him: and he said, Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel: now therefore, I pray thee, take a blessing of thy servant. But he said, As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none. And he urged him to take it; but he refused. And Naaman said, Shall there not then, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules' burden of earth? for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the Lord. (2 Kings 5:15-17)

Unfortunately (from the perspective of the four), Naaman returned to Syria, where no doubt he was distant from any local congregation of the true religion.  Too bad.  I've always thought of Naaman as a true convert, but according to the four, he had no right to be considered one, for he lived too far away.  A pity.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Can You Be a Christian If You Don't or Can't Live Near a Local Orthodox Congregation?

Some people have told me recently that, in their view, a person has no right to be considered a Christian if he cannot live nearby a local church that he can be a member of.  One person has told me, more specifically, that the qualification is that one must be able to attend each week.

There are a lot of people in the world who have just been un-Christianized by this idea.  If you get kidnapped, and you can't get to church every week, that's it for you--you're out of the visible church.  If you should be so unfortunate as to become a Christian in a land where no local churches have been established and you can't move right away, too bad for you--you're out of the visible church.  We mustn't have any missionaries go to any distant places where there aren't local churches, for that would remove their right to be considered Christians.  If you live in a city and your local church folds, and there are no other local churches you can in good conscience join, and you can't move in the near future, too bad for you--you no longer have a right to be considered a Christian.  Woe to all those Reformed people who live in lands dominated by Roman Catholicism and where there are often no nearby orthodox Reformed churches or other churches one can in good conscience join!  Woe to those Reformed people who live in nations dominated by other religions where there are nearly no Reformed Christians or perhaps any Reformed churches at all!  Woe to those who have any calling at all that takes them away from a local orthodox congregation!  Make sure you don't live in too rural an area, or your Christianity might be endangered!  And so on, and so on.

Of course, this view is not a biblical view, for there is no biblical basis for it.  Nor is it the historic Reformed view.  But, since some have asserted it (though I've only heard four people so far assert it), I thought I'd make some responses to it.

UPDATE 12/10/14:  Or what about a person who has become a Christian in prison, or who has committed a crime and gone to prison and repented, or a person wrongfully accused of a crime and in prison who can't maintain very regular contact with a local session, attend church, receive the sacraments, etc.?  What if someone is imprisoned in a foreign nation, or is a prisoner of war, and not allowed to have any contact with the Christian church or Christian elders?  According to the four, these have no right to be considered Christians.

Or what if a person has a spouse who has been imprisoned in a foreign country, or exiled, and he/she decides to go with the spouse, thus voluntarily following the spouse into such a situation where regular contact or possibly any significant contact or any contact at all can be maintained with a local session?  According to the four, he/she has relinquished all rights to be considered a Christian.

What Sharing Communion Really Means

I just came across an interesting article discussing a joint theological statement on the nature of Christ put out by some Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox (Coptic, Armenian, and other non-Chalcedonian) Christians.

The whole article is interesting for a number of reasons, but the thing that made me write a blog post was the article's recognition that agreement in faith and practice needs to be the foundation of unity among the churches.  The author complains that the joint theological statement that is the subject of the article really doesn't mean much until the other causes of separation between the Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox have been faced and dealt with.

In particular, I really liked this quotation:

Put another way, the ecumenical goal will not be reached until the members of either church in those reuniting with each other can attend the other’s churches and find the same doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and ascetical realities and standards. For sharing communion means not inter-communion between different churches, but communion within the same church. That is why these other details are so important, for they constitute what it means to live as a part of a church. 

Yes, that's it exactly.  Sharing communion is not "friendly relations" between churches, but unity in one church.  That is what we should be striving for.

For more, see here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Golden Mean of Church Constitutions

The principle that has come to be known as the "regulative principle of worship" is an absolutely crucial principle in the doctrine of the worship of God.  It teaches us that we are not to use human inventions in divine worship, for God alone has the authority to issue commands for how we are to serve him.  This principle calls into question the many innovations various Christian churches (such as the papists) have added to the worship of God without adequate warrant.

But there is another extreme to avoid on the other side of the principle as well.  It is possible to go too far and, in the name of the regulative principle, to refuse to recognize the church's authority to regulate practices when necessary in order to preserve the principles of the Word of God in areas where various times and customs call for different applications of those principles.  This extreme has, I think, been taken by many who have criticized the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, accusing it of being legalistic.  For instance, it is common in the FPCS for ministers and elders to oppose the practice of women wearing trousers.  This strikes many as legalistic.  "Where in the Bible does it say that women can't wear trousers?" they ask.  "I don't see it in there.  This is unbiblical legalism, the addition of man-made traditions to the commandments of God's Word!"

The FP custom here is rooted in Deuteronomy 22:5:  "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God."  So there is a biblical principle here.  It doesn't say anything about trousers, but if trousers are men's clothing, then women would be prohibited by this passage from wearing them.  It is the current dominant opinion within the FPCS that trousers are indeed men's clothing.  In my corner of existence, or the corner I have come from, this is a bit more ambiguous.  Is it unbiblical legalism for ministers and elders to require women to refrain from wearing trousers?  No, it is not, for it is the church's duty to enforce the commands of God.  Sometimes the commands of God deal with specific practices, such as the use of wine (and not just some general liquid) in the Lord's Supper.  Other times, such as here, the rule is general, and it is the custom of the times which determines the proper application.  It is the church's duty to discern the proper application of biblical principles in light of the particular times, and to apply those principles accordingly.  We may disagree with particular applications due to disagreements over how to read the current culture, and perhaps sometimes the elders of the church might be wrong in this regard.  But this is a far cry from a situation where the church simply makes up man-made rules without any serious biblical justification and imposes them on the people of God.  To confuse these two issues is to risk slandering the church when it is in fact acting justly (even when we think it is off-base in terms of its evaluation of the culture).  (Here is an explanation from an FP minister on the FP website of the FP position on clothing, including the trousers issue.)

To give just one more example, what Reformed church today would tolerate a pastor coming into the pulpit wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a purple mohawk?  (OK, some PCA churches might--just teasing.  :-) ).  And yet on what grounds would his action be censured?  Where in the Bible does it say anything about Hawaiian shirts and purple mohawks?  Nowhere, of course.  The justification for censuring this pastor will come from an attempt to apply biblical requirements regarding reverence and proper decorum in light of ideas current in the culture about the social meaning of Hawaiian shirts and mohawks.  And that is my point.  We understand this idea, but sometimes we allow unexamined prejudice to cause us to forget about it and jump to unjust conclusions when it comes to evaluating churches that do things differently from the way we are used to, or who are full of people who have a bit of a different cultural background from our own, or when we disagree with the church in terms of how to understand modern culture (if our cultures are even the same).  Perhaps we, in our part of the world, with the people we tend to hang out with, don't think much about trousers as men's clothing.  But should we write off an entire church simply because the majority of its leaders, for some reason or other, think of trousers differently, and a different cultural understanding of trousers currently prevails in that church?  It is certain that, whatever trousers mean to modern urban Americans in their 20s and 30s, within the culture that currently exists in the FP church trousers are men's clothing.  For a woman, then, to walk into an FP church wearing trousers is for that woman to make a cultural statement--"I have chosen to wear men's clothing"--just as a man walking into the pulpit of most Reformed churches wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a mohawk has made a cultural statement--"I choose to be irreverent."  Certainly, there is a need for understanding on both sides, so that the innocently ignorant should not be condemned along with those who should know better.  But even the innocently ignorant ought to be better instructed and should submit to the prevailing culture within the church once they understand what that is.  This is not legalism--It is charity mixed with a proper recognition of how biblical principles and cultural attitudes and practices go hand-in-hand with each other in human societies.

Below is a selection from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter 10, translated by Henry Beveridge in 1599, found at the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.  In it, Calvin articulates the idea I have discussed above.  In most of the chapter, Calvin has been insisting on the regulative principle and railing against those who would introduce human inventions into the worship of God, or who would enforce upon the church that which God has not commanded.  But after doing this, Calvin shows a proper respect for balance.  He turns around and criticizes the other extreme that we have been discussing above.  To illustrate the church's right and duty to enforce biblical principles in light of prevailing cultural attitudes and practices, he cites the decrees of the Jerusalem Council.  The Council decreed that Gentiles should refrain from meat offered to idols, from things strangled, and from blood.  But why did they command these things?

The first thing in order, and the chief thing in importance, is, that the Gentiles were to retain their liberty, which was not to be disturbed, and that they were not to be annoyed with the observances of the Law. . . The reservation which immediately follows is not a new law enacted by the apostles, but a divine and eternal command of God against the violation of charity, which does not detract one iota from that liberty. It only reminds the Gentiles how they are to accommodate themselves to their brother, and not to abuse their liberty for an occasion of offence. Let the second head, therefore, be, that the Gentiles are to use an innoxious liberty, giving no offence to the brethren. Still, however, they prescribe some certain thing, viz., they show and point out, as was expedient at the time, what those things are by which they may give offence to their brethren, that they may avoid them; but they add no novelty of their own to the eternal law of God, which forbids the offence of brethren.

According to Calvin, the Jerusalem Council prescribed these limitations on the liberty of the Gentiles as an application of the principle of charity.  Though there were were no universal or unchanging rules requiring their abstaining from some of those things that were proscribed, yet at that time their engaging in such things would have unavoidably involved the wounding of the consciences of their Jewish brethren.  Therefore, the council commanded an appropriate application of the principle of charity for that time and situation.

Calvin mentions some similar things that might be done by some Reformed pastors in his own day, out of concern for protecting the weak consciences of those lately come out of Romanism:

As in the case where faithful pastors, presiding over churches not yet well constituted, should intimate to their flocks not to eat flesh on Friday until the weak among whom they live become strong or to work on a holiday, or any other similar things, although, when superstition is laid aside, these matters are in themselves indifferent still, where offence is given to the brethren, they cannot be done without sin; so there are times when believers cannot set this example before weak brethren without most grievously wounding their consciences. Who but a slanderer would say that a new law is enacted by those who, it is evident, only guard against scandals which their Master has distinctly forbidden?

Calvin goes on, then, to discuss this general idea further.  I have pasted the rest of his words on this subject from this chapter below.  Let us learn from Calvin's comments here to seek the proper mean between the extremes of adding man-made traditions to the worship of God on the one hand and hindering the church from using its proper authority to apply the principles of God's Word to different cultural situations on the other.

But as very many ignorant persons, on hearing that it is impious to bind the conscience, and vain to worship God with human traditions, apply one blot to all the laws by which the order of the Church is established, it will be proper to obviate their error. Here, indeed, the danger of mistake is great: for it is not easy to see at first sight how widely the two things differ. But I will, in a few words, make the matter so clear, that no one will be imposed upon by the resemblance.

First, then, let us understand, that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to ensure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence. Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul's injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, (1 Cor. 14: 40.)

But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgements and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form. So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul's injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds.

In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religion obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety.

We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish between those impious constitutions (by which as we have said, true religion is overthrown, and conscience subverted) and the legitimate observances of the Church, if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended, viz., that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds, as it were, of moderation and humanity. For when a law is understood to have been made for the sake of public decency, there is no room for the superstition into which those fall who measure the worship of God by human inventions. On the other hand, when a law is known to be intended for common use, that false idea of its obligation and necessity, which gives great alarm to the conscience, when traditions are deemed necessary to salvation, is overthrown; since nothing here is sought but the maintenance of charity by a common office.

But it may be proper to explain more clearly what is meant by the decency which Paul commends, and also what is comprehended under order (I Cor. 14:40).

And the object of decency is, partly that by the use of rites which produce reverence in sacred matters, we may be excited to piety, and partly that the modesty and gravity which ought to be seen in all honourable actions may here especially be conspicuous. In order, the first thing is, that those who preside know the law and rule of right government, while those who are governed be accustomed to obedience and right discipline. The second thing is, that by duly arranging the state of the Church, provision be made for peace and tranquillity.

We shall not, therefore, give the name of decency to that which only ministers an empty pleasure; such, for example, as is seen in that theatrical display which the Papists exhibit in their public service, where nothing appears but a mask of useless splendour, and luxury without any fruit. But we give the name of decency to that which, suited to the reverence of sacred mysteries, forms a fit exercise for piety, or at least gives an ornament adapted to the action, and is not without fruit, but reminds believers of the great modesty, seriousness, and reverence, with which sacred things ought to be treated. Moreover ceremonies, in order to be exercises of piety, must lead us directly to Christ.

In like manner, we shall not make order consist in that nugatory pomp, which gives nothing but evanescent splendour, but in that arrangement which removes all confusion, barbarism, contumacy, all turbulence and dissension.

Of the former class we have examples, (1 Cor. 11: 5, 21,) where Paul says that profane entertainments must not be intermingled with the sacred Supper of the Lord; that women must not appear in public uncovered. And there are many other things which we have in daily practice, such as praying on our knees and with our head uncovered, administering the sacraments of the Lord, not sordidly, but with some degree of dignity; employing some degree of solemnity in the burial of our dead, and so forth. In the other class are the hours set apart for public prayer, sermons and solemn services; during sermon, quiet and silence, fixed places, singing of hymns, days set apart for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the prohibition of Paul against women teaching in the Church, and such like. To the same list especially may be referred those things which preserve discipline, as catechising, ecclesiastical censures, excommunication, fastings, &c.

Thus all ecclesiastical constitutions, which we admit to be sacred and salutary, may be reduced to two heads, the one relating to rites and ceremonies, the other to discipline and peace.

But as there is here a danger, on the one hand, lest false bishops should thence derive a pretext for their impious and tyrannical laws, and, on the other, lest some, too apt to take alarm, should, from fear of the above evils, leave no place for laws, however holy, it may here be proper to declare, that I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine.

Let us take, for example, the bending of the knee which is made in public prayer. It is asked, whether this is a human tradition, which any one is at liberty to repudiate or neglect? I say, that it is human, and that at the same time it is divine. It is of God, inasmuch as it is a part of that decency, the care and observance of which is recommended by the apostle; and it is of men, inasmuch as it specially determines what was indicated in general, rather than expounded.

From this one example, we may judge what is to be thought of the whole class, viz., that the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe, (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages,) in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.

Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy.

You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity which, though we do not all need, we, however all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognise in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman's bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbour that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered. And there are some occasions on which it is not less seasonable for her to speak than on others to be silent. Nothing, moreover, forbids him who, from disease, cannot bend his knees to pray standing. In fine, it is better to bury a dead man quickly, than from want of grave-clothes, or the absence of those who should attend the funeral, to wait till it rot away unburied. Nevertheless, in those matters the custom and institutions of the country, in short, humanity and the rules of modesty itself, declare what is to be done or avoided. Here, if any error is committed through imprudence or forgetfulness, no crime is perpetrated; but if this is done from contempt, such contumacy must be disapproved. In like manner, it is of no consequence what the days and hours are, what the nature of the edifices, and what psalms are sung on each day. But it is proper that there should be certain days and stated hours, and a place fit for receiving all, if any regard is had to the preservation of peace. For what a seed-bed of quarrels will confusion in such matters be, if every one is allowed at pleasure to alter what pertains to common order? All will not be satisfied with the same course if matters, placed as it were on debatable ground, are left to the determination of individuals. But if any one here becomes clamorous, and would be wiser than he ought, let him consider how he will approve his moroseness to the Lord. Paul's answer ought to satisfy us, "If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God."(I Cor. 11:16).

Moreover, we must use the utmost diligence to prevent any error from creeping in which may either taint or sully this pure use. In this we shall succeed, if whatever observances we use are manifestly useful, and very few in number; especially if to this is added the teaching of a faithful pastor, which may prevent access to erroneous opinions. The effect of this procedure is, that in all these matters each retains his freedom, and yet at the same time voluntarily subjects it to a kind of necessity, in so far as the decency of which we have spoken or charity demands. Next, that in the observance of these things we may not fall into any superstition, nor rigidly require too much from others, let us not imagine that the worship of God is improved by a multitude of ceremonies: let not church despise church because of a difference in external discipline. Lastly, instead of here laying down any perpetual law for ourselves, let us refer the whole end and use of observances to the edification of the Church, at whose request let us without offence allow not only something to be changed, but even observances which were formerly in use to be inverted. For the present age is a proof that the nature of times allows that certain rites, not otherwise impious or unbecoming, may be abrogated according to circumstances. Such was the ignorance and blindness of former times, with such erroneous ideas and pertinacious zeal did churches formerly cling to ceremonies, that they can scarcely be purified from monstrous superstitions without the removal of many ceremonies which were formerly established, not without cause, and which in themselves are not chargeable with any impiety.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Apparent Absurdities in Modern Physics

Physicists have been doing some strange things since early in the twentieth century, and they seem to keep getting stranger and stranger.  Let me give you some examples.  I've recently been reading The Life of the Cosmos, by physicist Lee Smolin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).  He articulates some of these things (though you will run into them in just about any substantial book on modern physics or theoretical physics).

Here is a quotation from Smolin's description of the development of a theory called "string theory" (p. 64):

    What was even more significant is that in the cases where the program worked, physicists--beginning with Yochiro Nambu, Holgar Nielsen and Leonard Susskind--realized that the solutions they found did not correspond to the traditional conception that a fundamental particle is a point that has no extension or dimension.  Rather than behaving like mathematical points, they behaved more like stretched, one dimensional objects, something like rubber bands.
    This led to the idea that perhaps atomism is right, because there are fundamental things in the world.  Only these things are not to be visualized as point particles; they are instead one-dimensional.  These fundamental one dimensional objects are what we call now strings.  Just as a point has no size, these also take up no space, as their diameters are zero.  But they do have length.

OK, let's analyze this for a moment.  What it sounds like Smolin is saying is that there were two ideas of what the world is fundamentally made of being discussed.  One idea was that the world is made up of point particles which take up no space and have no size, which have no length, height, or depth.  The other idea was that the world is made up not of point particles but of one-dimensional strings.  These strings take up no space, being one-dimensional, but they do have length.

Here's the problem:  Taken at face value, both of these ideas are meaningless nonsense.  In case you haven't noticed, material objects take up space.  They have size.  They have dimensions--height, width, length.  So how could they be made up of particles which have no size and take up no space?  And what even is a "particle" which has no size or dimensions and takes up no space?  It is exactly equivalent to "nothing."  Material objects, by definition, have size and dimension and take up space.  That's just what "matter" is.  If you remove size and space from a material object, you remove its very essence, its very substance.  So why in the world are we talking about material particles which have no size and take up no space?!

The idea of "strings" is even better.  They, too, take up no space.  They have only one dimension (length, I guess), but no height or width.  But this concept, too, makes absolutely no sense taken at face value.  What in the world is an object that has length but no height or width?  If a supposed "material object" has no width, it has no substance at all.  But these amazing objects, which have no material substance at all and take up no space, yet are of definite length.  "Nothing" now has a definite length, and is the fundamental building block of all material objects!

What in the world is going on here?  I think we're still in the world of serious scientists.  I don't think these ideas are intended as an elaborate practical joke.  But, taken at face value, they are meaningless gibberish, utter nonsense.  Yet these scientists talk about them as if they make perfect sense, and they claim that the ideas make predictions that can be tested, etc.  One possibility to explain this bizarre situation is that the physicists have developed mathematical formulas that work to describe in mathematical form the sorts of observations they are making.  Perhaps the whole thing makes sense as math, and they are simply using extremely odd and misleading ways of communicating these math concepts as descriptions of objects and functions in the real world.  Perhaps they have failed to distinguish between mathematical ideas that work in mathematics and descriptions of physical reality.  For example, 2-4=-2 works just fine in math.  It is a very useful idea.  But as soon as you start to think that the formula is describing an actual material state of affairs ("I had two apples on the table, and I took four away, so now I have negative two apples on the table."), you run into serious trouble.  Not all mathematics describes material objects and functions.  Sometimes mathematics works at a purely logical and theoretical level--which is very useful, but not to be confused with one-to-one descriptions of what can exist or go on in the physical universe.  In the case of some of these ideas in modern physics, I really don't know what is going on.  My guess is that there is something of value here in terms of mathematics, and that either the scientists are using language I simply do not understand or they are using the wrong language (either because they are simply misusing language or because they truly are confused about the distinction between mathematical formulas and descriptions of physical reality).

Here's another example of the same sort of thing, from the same Lee Smolin book.  This time, we are talking about the odd characteristic of string theory to require more than three dimensions to exist in the universe.  If this seems like a problematic situation to you, welcome to my club.  But, have no fear, string theorists think they can solve this problem (p. 67):

    The idea is to postulate that our world does have nine dimensions, but that six of them are rolled up, so that the diameter of the universe in these directions is not much more than a Planck length.  There would then be no way for any of the elementary particles, such as the protons--which are twenty orders of magnitude larger than the diameter of these curled up dimensions--to know about anything other than the three remaining dimensions.

Feel better?  I hope not.  If I'm understanding correctly, what I just heard was this:  "String theory has the unfortunate characteristic of adding six dimensions to the universe in addition to our usual three, which seems to be a problem.  But not to worry!  The other six dimensions are all rolled up into tiny little balls, so they don't get in the way."

It will be helpful here to remember what a "dimension" is.  The three dimensions are height, width, and length.  They are nothing other than directions in space.  There are three fundamental directions you can go (or grow) in space.  Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a room.  You can go 1. forwards and backwards, 2. left and right, 3. up or down, or 4. a combination of these.  Those are the only possibilities in the physical universe.  There just aren't any other directions to go, if you think about it.  But string theory is telling us that there are six other directions things can go (or grow) in.  Perhaps you are wondering why you haven't noticed them?  Well, it's because they're itty-bitty and rolled up into little balls.  What?!  We're talking about directions, right?  What in the world does it mean to say that there are six directions that are rolled up into tiny little balls?!  Directions are not material objects.  I can roll playdough up into little balls.  I can roll paper up into little balls.  These are physical objects or substances.  But directions aren't that sort of thing.  You can't pick up a direction, put it in your pocket, drop it on the floor, put it in some water to see if it floats or not ("Look, dad, I just put 'up' into a glass of water, and it floats!"  "That's really neat, son!").

Again, I don't think I'm the victim of an elaborate practical joke.  These PhD scientists seem to really mean what they're saying.  But how can they?  How can anyone with the smallest modicum of an ability to think in a logical and intelligent manner speak seriously this kind of complete nonsense?  Again, I suspect that there is some mathematical truth at the heart of these things, and that something is going seriously wrong in communication or translation.  But I wish I could figure out what it is, because they're driving me nuts!

I'm sure I'll be writing more on this in days to come, and it will end up under the label "Modern Physics".  So stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On the Love of Truth

Great comments by well-known philosopher John Locke, from Chapter XIX of his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, talking about how the love of truth creates a motivation to avoid forming beliefs and making claims beyond what the evidence warrants.

The version below is the one found on the Era of Great Voyages website.  I've removed the headings.

1. He that would seriously set upon the search of truth ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it. There is nobody in the commonwealth of learning who does not profess himself a lover of truth: and there is not a rational creature that would not take it amiss to be thought otherwise of. And yet, for all this, one may truly say, that there are very few lovers of truth, for truth's sake, even amongst those who persuade themselves that they are so. How a man may know whether he be so in earnest, is worth inquiry: and I think there is one unerring mark of it, viz. The not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant. Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain, receives not the truth in the love of it; loves not truth for truth's sake, but for some other bye-end. For the evidence that any proposition is true (except such as are self-evident) lying only in the proofs a man has of it, whatsoever degrees of assent he affords it beyond the degrees of that evidence, it is plain that all the surplusage of assurance is owing to some other affection, and not to the love of truth: it being as impossible that the love of truth should carry my assent above the evidence there is to me that it is true, as that the love of truth should make me assent to any proposition for the sake of that evidence which it has not, that it is true: which is in effect to love it as a truth, because it is possible or probable that it may not be true. In any truth that gets not possession of our minds by the irresistible light of self-evidence, or by the force of demonstration, the arguments that gain it assent are the vouchers and gage of its probability to us; and we can receive it for no other than such as they deliver it to our understandings. Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.

2. The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another's belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it. . . .

4. Reason is natural revelation, whereby the eternal Father of light and fountain of all knowledge, communicates to mankind that portion of truth which he has laid within the reach of their natural faculties: revelation is natural reason enlarged by a new set of discoveries communicated by God immediately; which reason vouches the truth of, by the testimony and proofs it gives that they come from God. So that he that takes away reason to make way for revelation, puts out the light of both, and does much what the same as if he would persuade a man to put out his eyes, the better to receive the remote light of an invisible star by a telescope.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nuanced Fellowship

The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations. In such denominations Christians exercise a fellowship toward each other in doctrine, worship, and order that they do not exercise toward other Christians.

- OPC Form of Government, Chapter IV

This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

For the past month, we've been settling into our new church situation.  We are now adherent members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and have a particular connection to the Santa Fe congregation of that church.  We've moved from being members of the OPC, and are now regular attenders at New Song PCA in Salt Lake City.

Our situation is providing us with a practical manifestation of the state of denominational division in the Christian and Reformed world.  We are members of a church whose nearest congregation is in Santa Fe, TX, but we attend regularly a local PCA church.  The main pastor at New Song PCA has (very graciously) established a connection with the elders in Santa Fe, in order to provide help to them in their oversight of us while we live at a distance.  We participate in some aspects of the worship service at New Song, but we do not sing the hymns (and they currently sing no psalms, typically), and we do not participate in communion (which they do every other Lord's Day).  We do not yet have communicant status in the FPCS, and so we are not yet approved to take communion by those who have the authority to make that determination.  New Song has (once again, very graciously) invited us to take communion with them, but we would not want to make a decision to participate on our own without Santa Fe's approval.  Instead, we intend, for as long as we live at a distance, insofar as it is manageable for us to do so, to attend the communion seasons in the Santa Fe congregation.  We also intend to have future children baptized in the FPCS.

Our relationship with New Song, then, is one of nuance.  The quotation above from the OPC Form of Government puts it well.  The PCA and the FPCS are not in full communion with each other.  There is no formal acceptance of each others' legitimacy and authority.  And yet, both denominations are manifestations of the visible Body of Christ.  The visibility of the church, as the Westminster Confession (as well as the OPC Form of Government) points out, is not an all-or-nothing affair.  The church can be and has been "sometimes more, sometimes less visible" and can be "more or less pure."  When denominations are divided, the divided groups are regarding each other as schismatic (assuming a consistent presbyterian system), and yet, as the OPC Form of Government aptly puts it, the visible unity between the divided churches is "not altogether destroyed," but is "greatly obscured," because even schismatic churches can be real manifestations of the Body of Christ.  There is no de jure, formal unity, but there can be a de facto, informal unity.

Being in such partial, informal communion with a local church can be awkward.  It is awkward to be developing relationships, worshipping together, and engaging in mutual fellowship, while at the same time not being formal members, not singing the hymns (or participating in upcoming Christmas celebrations), and not sharing in communion.  It is also awkward to be members of a denomination which has no local existence outside of ourselves, making our communion with that denomination much more difficult and less ideal than we would like.  It is tempting to want to find a way to remove that awkwardness, but, upon reflection, there is something fitting about it.  Our situation should feel awkward, because it is awkward.  It is an immediate, tangible manifestation of the reality of denominational division.  Many in the Reformed world, so it seems, would like to forget about these divisions and simply paper over them, as if they were no big deal.  But they are a big deal.  The church of Christ is supposed to be one.  Churches are supposed to exist in full communion with each other.  There is supposed to be full agreement in foundational matters of doctrine, worship, and practice.  Church officers and courts are supposed to function in mutual submission to each other.  But these things don't happen when denominations are divided.  And this should distress us.  It should be distressing that members of the FPCS, who are Presbyterians, should have to exist in such an awkward state and not be able to be in full communion with and fully participate in the activities of another Presbyterian church.

So I don't think it would be a good thing to try to remove the feeling of awkwardness.  Let it stand instead as a reminder to us and to all that the de facto visible Body of Christ is in a very sad state, and let it spur us on to consider deeply why this is the case and what we can and should be trying to do about it.  And, in the meantime, we will go on (at least for a while) and enjoy the positives of the partial communion that we have with the PCA (which is very precious and not to be underestimated), while feeling awkward about what is missing.

For more, see here and here.