Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Moving Fences

I grew up in what I thought of as a very traditional Presbyterian church. The ministers wore robes. The choir wore robes. There was an organ. There was a split pulpit (lectern on the left of the congregation, pulpit on the right). There were stained-glass pictures of Jesus around the church, especially the large one up behind the choir loft. We had Sunday school and youth fellowship. There was no Sunday evening service. There was no Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

When I got to seminary, I began to discover that my home church was not a very traditional Presbyterian church. Or it was a very recently developed tradition. I did not make that discovery based on the assigned readings in my classes. For the most part, nothing I was assigned to read had been published before 1950. (I was in seminary from 1977-1980, so that would be the equivalent today of being assigned nothing written before 1988.) But, driven by my own curiosity and the encouragement of fellow students, I read well beyond what was assigned. I learned about traditional Presbyterian practices, such as the singing of psalms exclusively without instrumental accompaniment; the eschewing of any visible representations of any of the persons of the Trinity. I learned about the history of Sunday school (initially developed as an evangelistic outreach to unchurched children). I learned about midweek prayer meetings. I learned about, and even attended, a church that had a Sunday evening service (though sparsely attended) as well as the Sunday morning service. I read, and read about, the Reformed confessions of faith (I was never required to read any of them in my seminary classes). I read about the history of Reformed liturgies. I developed a very different idea of what “traditional Presbyterian” meant. Some of the changes to the tradition that had occurred in the four centuries between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century I thought were good and valuable. Others I thought (and still think) unsound and unhelpful, and actually damaging to what being Presbyterian means. But I was able to evaluate those changes because I had made a study of them.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” (The Thing, “The Drift From Domesticity,” 1929)

I once sat in a presbytery meeting and heard a young recent seminary graduate express a scruple about the prohibition of images of Jesus that is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 109. He said that he didn’t believe it was correct. When asked if he had ever read anything defending the Catechism’s view, he said that he didn’t need to. He further said that he wouldn’t read anything defending it unless the presbytery required him to, because the view expressed by the Catechism was so obviously wrong. The presbytery declined to require him to read anything and granted him an exception on the matter. He struck me as the type of “modern reformer” referred to by Chesterton. He didn’t see the use of the fence and wanted it removed. Perhaps it is uncharitable of me, but it appears to me that many of the debates in the PCA are between the two types of reformers mentioned by Chesterton. Some want to do away with the fences without having any idea why the fences are there. Would that all of us would be the second type of reformer, knowing not only why the fences were put there in the first place, but also why now it makes good sense to move them (or not).

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Knowing Your Ignorance

Some people think I know a lot. Perhaps I do in some comparative sense, but in an absolute sense, I am an ignoramus. I am only too aware of the vast gaps in my knowledge, even in the areas in which I am supposed to be an expert. We are all condemned to ignorance by the mere fact of our finitude. If you read a book a week for eighty years, you would read a little over four thousand books. If you read a book a day for those same eighty years, you would read about 29,000 books. Most people don’t come close to the first number, let alone the second. But even if someone managed to read 29,000 books in their lifetime, it would still be a minute fraction of the number of books in print. According to Wikipedia, about 300,000 books (new books and re-editions) were published in the US (in English) in 2013. If only half of those were new books, there were still over 150,000 new books published in that year alone. It is simply impossible for someone to keep up with the flood of information available to us. Granted, not all of these books are useful or significant, but the number that are useful and significant, even in a limited area such as Old Testament studies, is far beyond the capability of any one person to keep track of, let alone master. These facts, however, should not deter us from seeking to increase our knowledge, particularly in the things of God.

As I read discussions and comments on Facebook, it quickly becomes apparent that most of us pretend to a level of knowledge that we simply don’t have. This pretense stems from pride and arrogance, and a desire to win whatever argument we have entered into, which itself speaks of pride. Ministers in particular seem to be guilty of this, though that may be no more than my observation based on the self-selection of my friends on Facebook. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that ministers are supposed to be knowledgeable about the Bible and theology. But ministers of the gospel are supposed to be concerned about the truth. It is not helpful to the cause of truth when we pontificate out of our ignorance, rather than comment carefully out of our knowledge. This applies to all of life, and not just to the limited sphere of social media.

It is often more helpful for a minister to say, “I don’t know, but if you need me to I will find out.” This admission accomplishes three things. First, it rebukes us for our pride. Second, it strengthens our humility. Third, it drives us to a more diligent study of those things that we, as ministers of the gospel, ought to know. These are all good things in themselves. Further, it serves to encourage those in our churches to remember that their ministers are not infallible, and to pray for us in the burden that we bear to hold forth the truth in righteousness.

May we resolve to be more humble about our knowledge, to be more self-aware regarding our ignorance, and to strive for a more thorough knowledge of the truths of which God has made us stewards.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Preparing Young Men for the Ministry

Someone in a Facebook group posted last week that their pastor had his eighteen-year-old son preach for the congregation, and they asked whether that was right or not. It provoked quite a bit of discussion. I realize that some ecclesiastical traditions try to get young men into the pulpit as soon as possible, arguing that they need experience in the pulpit if they are going to be effective preachers. I think it’s a bad idea, for several reasons.

First, young men put in positions of authority tend to become living, breathing examples of “knowledge puffs up.” Second, unless a man has some physical limitation, almost anyone can be taught to speak effectively in public. Certainly, preachers need practice, but I’m not sure it helps the congregation to put teenagers in the pulpit. Practice can be provided in other ways and in other contexts. Third, I’m sure that most young men do not meet the qualifications for elder set out in 1 Timothy and Titus.

What do I look for in a young man who thinks that he might be called to the ministry? First, the qualifications set out in the Pastoral Epistles. But in addition to those, I think four other qualifications are necessary. First, does the young man have a servant’s heart? I read often about teenagers doing community service to pad their applications for college. But, does this young man look for opportunities to serve? Does he serve when no one is watching? Does he work as hard at service when he is not being watched as when he is? The work of the pastor is a work of service. Someone without a servant’s heart may preach well, but he will never be a pastor.

Second, is he teachable? It is unfortunately the case that many young men, especially in Reformed circles, go through “cage-stage” Calvinism, in which they think themselves to be the one appointed to cure all the ills of the church. But young men need to learn. They need to learn that a good grasp of the Five Points is not enough. They need to learn that others, particularly older folks, often know more than the young man does, due to life experience and faithful participation in the life of the church. Is the young man willing to be corrected? It he receptive to the sometime painful rebuke?

Third, is he faithful? I have occasionally heard younger people referred t as “possibility junkies.” That is, they won’t commit to anything because something better might come along. Or, having committed to something, will renege on it because something better has come along. So, is this young man faithful, making commitments and staying with them even if “something better” comes along? Is he a regular and faithful participant in the life of the church? Is he in attendance week in and week out, or is he frequently absent?

Fourth, is he patient? Often, young men are in a hurry to get into the pulpit. He has a real zeal for Christ. He has a true desire to proclaim the gospel. This combination of zeal and desire tends to produce an urgency on his part to enter the work of the ministry. But God is rarely in a hurry. In fact, God often puts a man in the wilderness for a while before he puts him in the ministry. Is this young man ready to wait for God’s timing?

God does occasionally call young men into early and evident pulpit ministry. Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon are often cited as examples. But these men are the exception, not the rule. Is a young man willing to be part of the rule, rather than the exception? Then, if he is also a teachable, patient, faithful servant, maybe he is ready to begin training for the ministry.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Basic Readings in Church History: Suggestions for the Beginner

Many Christians are poorly versed in Bible content and in theology, and last week I gave some suggestions for changing that. But compared with their knowledge of church history, those same Christians are virtual scholars in Bible and theology. For many, it seems that the history of Christianity began with their birth, or perhaps their rebirth. There is little to no sense of where they currently live in relation to the broader scope of the entire history of the church. Yet there is a vast library of accessible books that can correct that problem. For the person looking to begin an exploration of church history, I would recommend the following books.

First is S. M. Houghton’s Sketches from Church History. This is not a continuous history, but rather, as the title suggests, glimpses into episodes and persons from the past. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the first 1,400 years of church history, with the remainder focusing on the Reformation and, after the Reformation, focusing on the Protestant Church, especially in the West. While the selection of material doesn’t give the reader much on the Eastern Church or on the development of Roman Catholicism after the Reformation, it is a good introduction for a modern American evangelical. It has plenty of illustrations, which is also helpful.

Second would be Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. This book is now in its fourth edition. It is also light on the Eastern church but gives more information on Roman Catholic developments in the post-Reformation period. It is divided into forty-eight chapters, most of them in the ten to fifteen-page range. Thus, over the course of about a month and a half, at the rate of one chapter a day, the reader can get a decent introduction to the history of the church.

A third recommendation is Church History: The Basics from Concordia Publishing House. I am less familiar with this work, but it appears to be a good alternative to Shelley. It is an abbreviated form of the book The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, also from Concordia. This is a substantial church history in one volume. One advantage of it is that it includes readings from primary sources in each of the ages. A similar work would be Justo Gonzales’s The Story of Christianity, a popular choice for use in seminary church history survey courses

A little more advanced treatment can be found in the Pelican History of the Church series. This is a seven-volume collection consisting of the following: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church; R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages; Owen Chadwick, The Reformation; Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789; Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions; and (a relatively new addition to the series) Owen Chadwick, The Christian Church in the Cold War. As indicated, this is more demanding reading, but it gives a more thorough treatment of many of the doctrinal disputes that characterize the history of the church.

Finally, I would recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Johnson is not a church historian, but this is a readable account. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. From Kirkus Review: “Though the narrative is fast-paced and the style vigorously economic, the account brims with telling details and reasoned judgments and never seems superficial, Johnson eschews all special theological pleading and abides by professional canons of evidence and objectivity. Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, he maintains a healthy balance between the internal and external dimensions of Christianity's development; events and ideas mesh into a coherent story.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Basic Readings in Theology: Suggestions for the Beginner

Most Christians learn what theology they know from the preaching and teaching of their pastors. For some churches in the Reformed tradition, this has been accomplished by expository preaching in the morning service and catechetical preaching in the evening service. Expository preaching moves through books of the Bible, explaining and applying the teaching of the biblical text. Catechetical preaching uses one of the Reformed confessions or catechisms as the basis for explaining the doctrines of the Scriptures in a systematic fashion. In our day, however, this dual approach is uncommon, and the biblical and theological knowledge of people in the pews is scattered and unsystematic. Though people may have some vague ideas of the general content of the Bible, and some similarly vague ideas of such basic Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the full humanity and full deity of Christ, their knowledge is weak. The following suggestions are provided for those who want to learn more about the Bible and more about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Bible Content

I recommend Michael Williams’ little book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens. This book devotes about half a dozen pages to each book of the Bible. He gives a theme verse for each book, a summary of the content of the book, and a brief treatment of how that book points to Christ. It is very helpful to read the section, then read the book of the Bible that the chapter discusses. This works very well with a Bible reading program that goes through the Bible in a year. Another useful tool is the KJV Reformation Heritage Study Bible. This gives commentary on each chapter of the Bible designed to help the reader understand and apply the text. The Reformation Study Bible is also quite helpful, with detailed introductions to each book, as well as commentary throughout, and additional essays on key topics.


I recommend here Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine. This is an abbreviated version of his Systematic Theology, which in turn is something of a condensed presentation of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was done originally for high school and college students as a summary presentation of systematic theology. Another good resource is Basic Christian Doctrines, edited by Carl F. H. Henry. It is a collection of forty-three short essays by a variety of evangelical scholars. They were originally published in Christianity Today in the 1950s and were collected into one volume in 1962. It is available used at a very modest cost, and is also available in PDF form online:

Another useful book is Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Alexander was one of the first professors at Princeton Theological Seminary and, though written in the nineteenth century, his presentation is clear and accessible.

For those in Reformed churches, the classic confessions and catechisms also provide a solid foundation for the beginning reader. My recommendation would be to start with the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is available online in both its original form and in modern English. From there, the reader can move to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Commentaries are available on all these documents. The Westminster documents were written in the middle of the seventeenth century to provide a standard for the Church of England, though the Church of England never adopted them. The Belgic Confession was written in the sixteenth century for the churches in the Netherlands. The Heidelberg Catechism was another sixteenth-century document from the German Reformed churches. The Canons of Dort came out of the disputes over the teachings of Jacob Arminius in the early seventeenth century. These resources are all available online.

The person who studies these is well-equipped to move on to more substantial reading regarding both the Bible and systematic theology.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Pastors and Congregational Reading

Most pastors realize in seminary that they have gotten themselves into a profession that requires reading. Whether they read much before seminary, the class requirements force them to read a great deal. This is especially true for Presbyterian and Reformed pastors, as these churches have always put a high value on an educated clergy. By the time they finish seminary, they have gotten used to reading demanding material—academic biblical studies, systematic theology, church history. It is easy, then, to forget that at one time they really struggled with that material.

I have been a voracious reader since I learned to read. But until I got to college, I didn’t read anything that made any demands on me as a reader. Then my first class in college was a philosophy class. I passed the class, but I’m pretty sure I understood no more than about ten percent of what I read for that class. After I was converted, I read the Bible a lot, but I didn’t read a great deal of Christian literature. I did read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Sit, Walk, Stand (both perfectionist standards back in the day), but I remember almost nothing else of what Christian literature I read. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which seemed to me to be heavy reading. I also read another work by Lewis, either the Problem of Pain or Miracles, I’m not sure which. I think I finished the book but found it a very difficult slog. Then I read his Pilgrim’s Regress, which I didn’t understand at all.

After seminary, I have gone back and revisited some of those books and didn’t find them difficult. But by then, I had read enough difficult theology that I had the context and the foundational understanding to read Lewis with ease. I think something like this happens with most pastors. They have gotten used to reading difficult material, so they tend to think that everyone ought to be able to read it. 

I may be entirely wrong about this, but I think most people who can read don’t read. And most people who read don’t read anything that makes demands on them as a reader. They read what is comfortable for them. Pastors need to keep this in mind when they recommend books for people in their congregations. The fact that a given book is not difficult for you does not mean that it won’t be difficult for them. There’s a reason that most of the books on sale in a Christian bookstore are theologically substandard. They are written by people who have a substandard theological training, but they are also written for people who don’t know much theology. These authors may have bad theology, but they know their audience and they write to their audience
It’s something to keep in mind when recommending books for people in your congregation. Ask yourself if the person will not only willingly read the book but also understand it. If you have visited the person’s home, you should have a good idea of what they read (or whether they read). You should also keep a list of less demanding, more accessible, sound Christian books. Avoid recommending the fat books with small print, unless you know that is what the person reads. Avoid reprints of the Puritans. There’s nothing wrong with the Puritans—a lot of good stuff there. But most modern Americans would not be able to work through Puritan works without a lot of help. The Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks are about the most accessible Puritan works available. As a pastor, you are a shepherd. You want to feed your sheep good food, but it had better be food that they’re willing and able to eat.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A prayer for today

O Lord, we pray today for those who are anxious and in distress. Let them put their trust in you. Let them know that in you they will never be put to shame. Be quick to hear their prayers and deliver them speedily from their distress. Teach them to find in you a rock of refuge, a fortress of defense. In their trouble help them to commit themselves into your hands. Direct them, that they may not trust in useless idols of their own making, but instead teach them to place their full trust in you, their saving God. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (Ps 31:1-6)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reading the Bible: For Content vs. For Devotion

What does it mean to read the Bible “devotionally”? Does reading the Bible for content compete with reading the Bible devotionally? My guess is that most Christians would see contrary purposes in the two ways of reading. As part of the requirements for one of my classes, students are required to read 6-7 chapters of the Bible each day. One student commented at the beginning of the semester that he wasn’t used to reading the Bible that way. He usually read the Bible “devotionally:” certainly no more than a chapter at a time, more likely just a few verses. After reading, he would then spend time reflecting on what he had read. That is, perhaps, what most people mean by reading the Bible devotionally. The problem with that approach is that it is almost impossible ever to get the scope of the section, let alone the scope of the whole book, or the place of the book in the Bible as a whole.

Perhaps the difficulty is that we have the wrong idea of what it means to read the Bible devotionally. Devotional reading is a way of reading that is intended to increase our devotion to the God we serve. We best increase that devotion by getting to know the content of the Bible in a more thorough fashion than is the case for most of us. One thing that we will find in gaining a more thorough knowledge of the Bible is that we have often put God in our own convenient little boxes. Another way of putting it is that God is stranger and more unpredictable than we think. Because Achan violated the ban, God required that the Israelites stone him and his family to death (Joshua 7). When Saul violated the ban, God merely told him that he would not become the head of a dynasty. Saul remained king (1 Samuel 15). When David committed adultery and murder, he was not executed. He was not even explicitly required to offer a sacrifice (2 Samuel 12). I would argue that David did offer sacrifice (based on what he said in Psalm 51), because he also understood the requirements of the laws in Leviticus, but not based on an explicit requirement voiced by Nathan.

But how does one go about reading the Bible for both devotion and content at the same time? By doing a little more work than most people put into their devotional reading. The first step is to have a reading plan that takes you through the whole Bible in a reasonable amount of time (1-3 years). Anything slower is too slow. Second, use a Bible that does not have subheadings in the text. Instead, once you have read through your reading for the day, go back and outline what you have read. Pick out the major points of the section you have read. Then pick out the subpoints of the section. Having done that, you will then have a grasp of the development of the story (or the psalm, or the prophesy) that you are working on. Based on that outline, begin asking questions. What is happening here? Why is it happening? What is God doing in the passage? What is God requiring in this passage? Why are the people acting the way they are? What is motivating their behavior? From the answers to these questions, you can then begin developing points of personal application. These applications do not necessarily mean, “What do I do now?” The application may be, “What should I have learned here?” “What should I believe about God based on this passage?” In other words, application may have as much to do with what we are to believe as it does with what we are to do. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 3 summarizes it this way: What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

Once you have worked through a particular book, go back and put all your outlines together. See how the story develops, see how one section naturally flows into the next. As I said, this takes more time than perhaps you ordinarily devote to your “devotional” reading. But you will also come away with a more satisfying view of the Bible, and of the God who gave it to you.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Pastor and Bible Translations

Except in certain very conservative Christian circles, the KJV is no longer the exclusive Bible of the English-speaking church. Despite sales numbers, it is probably no longer even the primary Bible of the English-speaking church. That means that in most congregations, there are perhaps as many as half a dozen different English translations being read by the people in the pews. In the PCA, my own denomination, here is the likely scenario: some few of the oldest members are still using the KJV. The adults are probably using either the ESV or the NIV. Some are using the NIV2011. Some of the younger members may be using the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV). Perhaps some of the children are using the New Century Version (NCV) which is aimed at younger readers. Given this variety, what is a pastor to do?
It doesn’t really matter which version the pastor uses, though some congregants will follow his lead on Bible choice. But the pastor should find out which translations are being used in his congregation; and he should familiarize himself with them. By this, I do not mean that he should look up a few of his favorite passages in them to see what the translation does. Nor do I mean that he should do an exhaustive comparison of the translation with the original Hebrew and Greek. Pastors, by and large, have neither the time nor the expertise to do that.
In what follows, I presume that the pastor is reading the Bible annually. I suggest that he find out which versions the people in his congregation are using. Then, over a period of several years, use each one of those versions as his reading Bible for the year. By the end of the year, he will be intimately familiar with it. For example, if the pastor is using the ESV, but the majority of his congregation is using the NIV1984, probably his first year he should spend reading the NIV1984. He then moves through, in subsequent years, the other versions that are being used. Who knows? In this process he may even find a translation he prefers to the one he had been using.
Another thing that the pastor should do is have a variety of translations to read and consider in his sermon preparation. This would not even involve any expense, as there are several online sites that offer a variety of English versions free.
I have, over the years, read through a good number of the English translations available, including some of the more obscure ones. I have learned something from each one, and I have benefitted from each one.
I would make one other suggestion. Take the time to read Mark Ward’s little book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Even if you have never read the KJV, it is a wise and useful survey of the issues related to Bible versions.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Note on Psalm 145:13b

In the KJV, Psalm 145:13 reads: Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations. In the ESV, the verse reads: Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.

Notice that the second sentence in the ESV is absent in the KJV. The NASB follows the KJV, while the NIV and the New Living Translation agree with the ESV. The question is twofold. Where does this line come from? And, is it a legitimate part of the biblical text?

The answer to the first question is as follows: The additional line is found in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is also found in the Hebrew text of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), one medieval Hebrew manuscript, and in the Syriac version. It is not found in the vast majority of medieval Hebrew manuscripts.

The answer to the second question is more difficult, and the following comments constitute my summary of the arguments.

Arguments in favor of the originality of the line:

1.      Psalm 145 is an acrostic psalm. That is, each line (verse, in this case) begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. Verse 1 (after the title) begins with aleph. Verse 2 begins with bet, and so on. However, there is no nun (n) line in the standard Hebrew text, making it an incomplete acrostic. The line in the LXX, the DSS, the one Medieval Hebrew manuscript, and the Syriac supplies this “n” line, making the acrostic complete.

2.      All other verses in the Psalm are one line long, whereas this verse, with the second line, is two lines long. A copyist could have inadvertently skipped this second line in his copying, and copies made from that copy would not have included the line.

3.      The fact that the line is found in one medieval manuscript, the DSS, and two ancient versions makes a case for the originality of the line.

4.      The line fits well with what follows in the Psalm, making a transition in the thought from what precedes to what follows.

5.      Though the second part of the line (“and kind in all his works”) is also found in verse 17, such a repetition is occasionally found in the Psalms.

Arguments in favor of omitting the line:

1.      Almost all Hebrew manuscripts, after the DSS, do not include the line.

2.      The Psalm could have intentionally been an incomplete acrostic. There are other examples in the psalms of such incomplete acrostics.

3.      The LXX is not always an accurate translation in the Psalms.

4.      The Syriac translation in general shows a fair amount of influence from the LXX. Hence, it is not always considered a separate textual witness.

5.      An early copyist, noting the missing “n” line could have supplied it, explaining its presence in the DSS copies and in the one medieval manuscript.

6.      The second part of the line, “and kind in all his works” is also found in verse 17, perhaps indicating part of the source for some copyist seeking to complete the acrostic.

I don’t think the arguments in either direction are compelling, leaving it a matter of judgment on the part of translators. It should be noted, however, that prior to the 1950s, no translation team had access to the DSS manuscripts. The NASB, the NKJV, the NET Bible, and the Lexham English Bible are, to the best of my knowledge, the only post-1950s translations that do not include the line.

The NET Bible adds the following note: Psa 145 is an acrostic psalm, with each successive verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, in the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) text of Psa 145 there is no verse beginning with the letter nun. One would expect such a verse to appear as the fourteenth verse, between the mem (‌ם) and samek (‌ס) verses. Several ancient witnesses, including one medieval Hebrew manuscript, the Qumran scroll from cave 11, the LXX, and the Syriac, supply the missing nun (‌ן) verse, which reads as follows: "The Lord is reliable in all his words, and faithful in all his deeds." One might paraphrase this as follows: "The Lord's words are always reliable; his actions are always faithful." Scholars are divided as to the originality of this verse. L. C. Allen argues for its inclusion on the basis of structural considerations (Psa 101-150 [WBC], 294-95), but there is no apparent explanation for why, if original, it would have been accidentally omitted. The psalm may be a partial acrostic, as in Psa 25 and Psa 34 (see M. Dahood, Psalms [AB], 3:335). The glaring omission of the nun line would have invited a later redactor to add such a line.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

On the Church and Bible Translations

Mark Ward recently published a significant book on the KJV: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. He draws attention to the problems created by the changes in the English language over the past four centuries, as those problems easily lead to misunderstandings of what the KJV is saying. This is often the case even for highly educated people who think they are invulnerable to such misapprehensions.

For about three and a half centuries, the KJV was the Bible for English readers. It was the pew Bible for churches that had pew Bibles. The phraseology of the KJV was often familiar even to those who had not read the Bible much. It was the Bible not only of English-speaking Christians but the Bible of the English-speaking church. The English Revised Version (1885) and the American Standard Version (1901) were intended as updates and replacements of the KJV, but neither made any significant headway either among individual readers or in churches.

Modern English versions began to appear in the early part of the twentieth century. James Moffatt produced a translation that achieved some popularity among Bible aficionados (C. S. Lewis recommended the New Testament of it somewhere, and it remains in print), but it was never intended to be used as a church Bible. Faculty at the Universities of Chicago and Toronto produced a modern English version about the same time as Moffatt, titled The Complete Bible: An American Translation, but it never received any wide use. To my knowledge, it has not been reprinted since the 1940s. It might have worked well as a church Bible, but never was used as such.

The big change began with the publication of the Revised Standard Version in the 1940s and 1950s. The New Testament appeared in 1946, the Old Testament in 1952, and the Apocrypha in 1957. This translation was done under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. It was widely and quickly adopted by mainline Protestant denominations. The church I grew up in (UPCUSA) had RSV pew Bibles, and we were given RSV Bibles in second-grade Sunday school (in 1971, the church gave its graduating high school seniors copies of Good News for Modern Man). The Hymnbook, a hymnal produced as a joint venture by several Presbyterian denominations in 1955, used the RSV text for the Psalms responsive readings that were printed at the back of the hymnal.

Conservative churches continued to use the KJV until the mid-1970s, when the NIV first appeared. The generally conservative tone of the NIV, its relatively easy readability, and its heavy marketing made it quickly the go-to translation for evangelical churches. In the last twenty years or so, things have changed. Crossway got permission to use the RSV as a base text and a translation committee produced the English Standard Version. About the same time, with funding from Lifeway, a translation committee produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible. This has recently been updated as the Christian Standard Bible. It serves as the base text for Sunday School literature for the Southern Baptist Convention. Five of the mainline denominations put together a translation committee that produced the Common English Bible, which is now used as the base text for their liturgical and Sunday school materials. Independent evangelical churches use generic Sunday School material, most of which is keyed to the NIV.

Most churches no longer have pew Bibles. So, the following situation is found in the American church: mainline churches use the NRSV (the 1989 revision of the RSV) or the Common English Bible. Southern Baptists (and perhaps other Baptist conventions) use the Christian Standard Bible. Conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches likely prefer the ESV. Most evangelical churches use the NIV. There is no longer a single Bible translation used by all English speakers. In any given Protestant/Evangelical congregation, there may be five or six different versions being used by the congregants. At some level, this variety of translations can be helpful, as different translations can bring out different nuances of the original languages. But at another level, it is a real loss to the church. We no longer, as it were, speak the same language.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Sin and the Prophets

It may be simply my impression and nothing more. But it seems that modern evangelical discussions of sin focus on what sin has done to us. The cultural factors of addiction, pornography, climate change, and the recent news items about the prevalence of sexual assault have tended to focus our ideas of sin on the awfulness of the way humans treat one another and the planet we occupy. This explains in part the prominence of “brokenness” in our considerations of sin. This is certainly an important aspect to the doctrine of sin. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged, broken, if you will. Without the restraining work of the Holy Spirit, our treatment of one another would be far worse than it is.

The problem with this approach to the doctrine of sin is that it appears to make of sin something outside of us, some external evil influence that does damage to the soul in the way that mustard gas damages the lungs. This view finds its expression in the bumper-sticker theology of “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” It separates the sin from the sinner. But this is not the biblical doctrine of sin. The biblical doctrine has it that “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Sin is not some external force or power, but a part of our character, an innate corruption of soul. Adam fell, and we are fallen, and that fallenness expresses itself in all aspects of our lives.

A further difficulty with our modern conception of sin is that we see the effects of sin as primarily horizontal. Dr. Nassar’s abuse of the gymnasts under his care was a profound offense against them. Sex trafficking is a profound offense against those who are its victims. But sin, biblically defined is not exclusively, or even primarily a horizontal offense. It is primarily an offense against God. It is this truth that seems to be lacking in many modern discussions of sin. It may be mentioned, but the profundity of the offense appears really to be ignored.

It is for this reason that most moderns seem to be uncomfortable with the biblical prophets. They spoke much about sin, but not in our terms. They were concerned with the horizontal affects of sin. But they were far more concerned with the vertical effects of sin. They were profoundly aware of the depth of offense their sin, and the sins of their people, brought against God. Sin, in the prophetic view, was an abomination against God. It was a stench in his nostrils.

We don’t share that view. We understand that the being of God is not affected by our sin. God is complete and perfect within himself. But we think, therefore, that sin has no effect on God. The prophets understood how wrong that is. So, they depicted sin in the most awful categories, with the ugliest, most repugnant images they could set out. They understood how ugly and repugnant a thing it was to offend against the thrice-holy God. We need to regain their understanding, or we will continue to redefine sin until is means only that which we find offensive.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Pastor and His Commentaries

Since part of the work of the pastor is to preach the biblical text, commentaries can make up a large part of a pastor’s library. There are pertinent questions to ask relative to commentaries: Which commentaries? And When? The second question is easier to answer.

When to Buy

My recommendation is that you hold off on buying commentaries on a particular book until you are ready to begin preparing to preach that book. My reasoning is as follows: first, new commentaries are always coming out. That means that what is a really good commentary now may be superseded five years down the road. For example, the two top-rated commentaries on Genesis on are those by Gordon Wenham and Victor Hamilton. Both are a generation old. Hamilton was published in 1990 and Wenham in 1987. There are seventeen commentaries on Genesis listed as forthcoming, with several of them being candidates to replace Wenham and Hamilton. If you are not planning on preaching on Genesis any time soon, you are better off waiting to buy.

Second, for most pastors, commentaries can be a significant part of the budget. You need to ask yourself if you can afford to have several thousand dollars’ worth of unused books sitting on your shelves.

To sum up: my recommendation on when to buy commentaries is shortly before you are ready to begin preparing a series on a specific book of the Bible.

Which to Buy?

You’ll get different advice from different people on this. My approach is minimalistic. I recommend that you buy no more than five commentaries on any particular book. You should have one technical commentary based on the Hebrew or Greek text of the book. You should have one somewhat less technical commentary that deals with selected matters related to the original languages and that goes through the book passage by passage. A third commentary should be expositional, not necessarily dealing with the original languages, but explaining the movement of the book. A fourth commentary should be a pre-critical commentary, which would generally be any pre-1850 commentary. My rationale for this is that those commentaries are coming to the biblical material from a different cultural setting, and therefore with a different set of questions to ask of the text. This can make the pastor aware of some of the breadth of issues that the biblical text addresses. A good source for identifying these commentaries is Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries ( Reading Spurgeon’s comments on the various commentaries is an education in itself. Many of these older commentaries are now available online at A fifth commentary can be something of a duplicate of one of the other four.

My own sense is that when you move beyond this minimum, you find yourself reading material that has already been covered in another commentary.

What Not To Buy

Don’t buy sets. The quality and usefulness of the commentaries in a set vary from one author to another. Commentary sets look nice on the shelf, but you end up with books you never use.

Don’t buy older commentaries that are available online. Yes, I know, that set of Keil & Delitzsch, or of Calvin, can look nice on the shelf. But they are available free online. Commentaries are for consultation and you will not be reading much at a time, so reading them online should not be too difficult.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Some Thoughts on Preaching

Three disclaimers: First, I don’t consider myself to be any better than average as a preacher. Second, aside from the preaching I hear at the church I attend, and the occasional conference, I don’t listen to much preaching. Third, no one has ever hired me to teach homiletics. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a lot of preaching over the last forty-some years, and I try, in my exegesis classes, to give the students some instruction in how to preach the passages we deal with.

Some preachers seem to be confused about some basics. A sermon is not the same thing as a theological lecture. Some preachers don’t seem to understand that, because their sermons focus exclusively on pouring out information about the text, more like a commentary than a sermon. A sermon is the explanation and application of a particular passage/topic/doctrine of Scripture. As such, the two key elements are the clear explanation of the text and the direct application of its message. It is not an exclusively intellectual exercise, but is intended to get to the heart through the head.

On the other hand, a sermon is not merely a means of moving the emotions of the congregation. Some preachers don’t understand that, as their sermons seem to focus on moving the emotions almost in a way that seems manipulative. Instead, both the head and the heart of the hearer must be involved.

Sermons are less about rhetoric than they are about connecting the text to the listener. I know that sounds vague, so an illustration might help. A number of years ago, I heard a sermon at a conference. It was clear that the preacher understood his text. He didn’t miss the main point. It was well-organized and clear. The preacher had obviously worked hard on the sermon. It was a rhetorical tour de force. But it was emotionally cold. It had not connected with the audience, and I heard very few commendations of the sermon afterwards. Another year, another conference, a different preacher. This time, the preacher had been assigned a topic common in Reformed theology. If you were to go to, and search for this topic, you would find many sermons on it. Most of them would use the same primary texts, and the outlines would be interchangeable. This man took a different approach. He didn’t take one text, he took many (sort of like the Book of Hebrews) and he came at the topic from an entirely unexpected angle. He, too, had clearly worked hard on the sermon. As with the other, it was well-organized and clear. The difference was that it was emotionally warm. By taking a different approach, coming at the topic from an unusual direction, he had made the topic clear, fresh, and applicable. He also, I think, had a clearer sense of his audience than the first speaker. I heard some complaints (from professors) about the approach he had taken. But I heard many more commendations of the message.

My own sense is that pastors, on the whole, spend less time in prayer and meditation over their sermons than they should. The sermon only begins with the exegesis of the passage or topic. It is brought to flower by being the subject of much reflection, much prayer, and an intimate knowledge of the congregation.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On Pastoral Praying

Hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on prayer. Countless sermons have been preached on prayer. But the reading of books on prayer makes no one a praying man. The essence of prayer is in the praying. As Nike says, “Just do it!” It doesn’t matter how articulate the prayer is. What does matter is the praying itself.

All Christians must be pray-ers, but the pastor especially must be a man of prayer, and this in two aspects: in private and in public. The private prayer of a pastor also has two aspects. There is first his praying for himself and his family. This prayer is the essential foundation to any other prayer. The man who prays for himself prays out of a sense of need, out a knowledge of his inability and his unworthiness. The man who does not pray for himself, whatever his claims to the contrary, thinks he does not need prayer. But a man must also pray for his family. To do this adequately, he must know his family—their needs, their cares, their concerns, their fears, and their frustrations. Many pastors have sacrificed their families to their ministry, thinking the latter to be more important, but the family must come before the church or the ministry. It is one of the essential qualifications for the office.

The second aspect of a pastor’s private prayer is prayer for his church. These prayers must not be vague and general. There are of course, general concerns and cares that are reflected, for example, in Paul’s prayers for the churches. But it does little good to pray for the growth in grace of John Doe if the pastor is not aware that John Doe’s wife is threatening divorce, or that John Doe fears that he will lose his job. This sort of information the pastor only knows if he is indeed pastoring the flock. In addition to the prayers for the individual congregants, there is prayer for the congregation as a whole, for its growth, for its strength, for its unity.

The pastor’s private prayer is fundamentally a matter of discipline. He must set apart time for the exercise of prayer, and that time should be regular. I make no prescriptions as to when, or where, or how long; only that it must be done, and done regularly.

The pastor’s public prayer is a matter of preparation. In the Puritan period in England, there was a great deal of debate between those who preferred the set prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, and those who argued for extemporaneous prayer. Both sides had a point, but the points got lost in the heat of the debate. Public prayer, the pastoral prayer that forms a part of public worship, should be planned. It need not be written out ahead of time, but the pastor should have carefully thought through the themes and points of the prayer before he prays. Many pastors are particularly weak on this. There are three books, then, that I recommend for pastors as they consider the public prayers of the church. The first is Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer. The second is Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer. This is available as A Way to Pray, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, and as A Method for Prayer, edited by Ligon Duncan. The third is Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer. All three of these are excellent resources for the pastor who desires to improve in his public praying.