Friday, May 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Overture 1: Pacific Northwest Presbytery

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Overtures to the 2015 PCA General Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

The State of the PCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Sin of Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Context and Structure of Psalm 90

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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