Sunday, June 17, 2018

Final Reflections on PCA GA 2018

There is no particular order to what follows.

It was a very short assembly. The opening worship service began at 1:30 Wednesday afternoon and, except for the closing devotional at 8:00 Friday morning, everything had been done by 10:00 or so Thursday evening. I think part of the reason the Assembly moved so well was that Irwyn Ince was a very effective moderator.

The Overtures Committee is to be commended for their excellent work. I just wish that all presbyteries had sent commissioners.

The informational reports are a waste of time. The information is in the Commissioner’s Handbook. Let the commissioners read those. Then the various committees wouldn’t have to spend money making infomercials.

The Committees of Commissioners for the various permanent committees and agencies have become rubber stamps for the committees and agencies. They are supposed to function in a checks-and-balances fashion, but they have long since ceased to do so. I was embarrassed for the Covenant College CoC with regard to the issue about putting women on the board. It struck me that the CoC in that case served as the advocate for Covenant College, rather than the devil’s advocate.

This assembly began the process of making consistent our constitutional statements on the nature of marriage.

The ratio of TEs to REs remained about 4-1. I don’t entertain any real hope of this changing anytime soon, though I continue to pray for a change.

I am becoming more convinced that we don’t need an annual GA. It didn’t strike me that there was anything done this year that would have been damaged by being put off to next year.

I still think we need a delegated assembly. As it is, “grass-roots Presbyterianism” looks more and more like the Southern Baptist convention with wet babies.

Perhaps, with 87 presbyteries, it is time to start thinking about synods. If presbyteries need to divide (or “multiply” as apparently the new buzzword is), that could be handled at the synod level without the need for the GA to render a judgment on it. As it is, the Assembly usually rubber stamps those requests.

Perhaps we could improve the TE to RE ratio if only the following TEs were allowed voting privileges: TEs who are currently serving as pastors, associate pastors, assistant pastors, RUF ministers, and those serving pastoral callings on the mission field. As a seminary professor, I would happily give up my voting privilege to someone who is actually pastoring a local church.

I’ll revisit these issues next year.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The PCA: A Connectional Church?

At the congregational level, there is not much difference between a congregational church and a PCA church. Congregational churches are often ruled by a board of elders, elected from among the members, which is also the case with Presbyterian churches. But, as far as church government goes, that is where the similarity ends. Presbyterians hold to the idea of a connectionalism through graded church courts. The “courts” language is unfortunate, as it gives a certain twist to the meaning of those bodies, and their purposes, that is not intended in the name. But that is a consideration for another post.

Unlike congregational churches, Presbyterian churches are partially defined by their identity as “connectional” churches, that is, congregations of the same denomination are vitally connected through the church courts. In the PCA, the session is the court of the congregation. The presbytery is the court of the churches in a defined area. The General Assembly (GA) is the court of the denomination as a whole. The difference between these courts and, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the SB Conventions in the various states is that decisions of the higher courts are determinative for the policies and practices of the lower courts. In other words, a decision by the presbytery affects all the congregations in the presbytery. A decision of the GA affects the presbyteries and the local congregations.

The question is whether the PCA is functionally a connectional church. My experience is limited both by time and area, in that I have been an ordained teaching elder (TE, minister) in the PCA for only a little over twenty-two years, and all that time I have served in Calvary Presbytery in the Upstate of South Carolina. But I was raised in the UPCUSA (now the PC[USA]) and served in various capacities in that denomination until I joined the PCA in 1981. My experience there was not much different from what I have experienced in the PCA. And my experience tells me that most PCA congregations are functionally congregational. Unless the area is saturated with PCA churches, one local congregation is at most vaguely aware of other PCA churches. There seems to be little cooperative work among them. The existence of presbytery and GA is acknowledged, but the existence of those courts seems to be more theoretical than practical (at least in the minds of congregational members).

How do we, as TEs in the PCA, change that reality in order to make the church connectional in practice as well as in theory? First, we can attend presbytery regularly (along with the allowed number of ruling elders [REs]). Then we give our congregation a report on the actions of presbytery. Did the presbytery take candidates under care? Did the presbytery license or ordain a man to ministry? Is the presbytery planting a church? Were decisions made at presbytery that will affect our congregation? It will benefit the congregation to know these things, to remind the congregation that they are connected to other congregations with similar goals. Second, we can make the concerns of presbytery a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists that most churches make available to members. Third, we can attend GA (with our allowed number of REs) and again inform the congregation about the actions of GA, particularly regarding things that will affect our congregation and/or the character of the denomination as a whole. Fourth, we can make the concerns of GA a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists we make available to our members. Fifth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of presbyteries. In this practice, it can be particularly helpful to contact the stated clerk of each presbytery to ask if there are particular concerns of that presbytery that we can pray for. Again, this keeps church members reminded that we are a vital part of a much larger national (and international) church. Sixth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of the committees and agencies of the GA. These committees and agencies regularly publish newsletters that include prayer requests. Seventh, we can in our prayer meetings particularly pray for upcoming meetings of our own presbytery and the annual meeting of GA.

These practices can accomplish two things. First, they will regularly remind the congregational members in a tangible way that they are not alone in their gospel labors. Second, we are reminded by James that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 CSB). Such prayers, along with the Word and the sacraments, are the very lifeblood of the church.

Sunday, June 03, 2018


The time has rolled around again for the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA GA). It is made up of REs (ruling elders, members of the ruling boards on local congregations) and TEs (ministers). The meeting and its purposes are briefly defined in the BCO (Book of Church Order—the policies and procedures manual for the PCA) and much more thoroughly treated in the RAO (Rules of Assembly Operations—the policies and procedures manual for the GA itself). The meeting itself is run according to the RAO and RRONR (Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised—the guide to orderly discussion for meetings, especially necessary for a meeting as large as the PCA GA, which generally has 1,200-1,500 commissioners).

The meeting can be, and usually is, overwhelming for first-timers. I suggest that any TE or RE who is attending for the first time attend the workshop that is scheduled for first-timers. It will help you get a handle on things, and the meeting will not be quite so overwhelming. But to get you started, here are some guidelines. First, if you have a laptop, download the Commissioner’s Handbook. That contains all the necessary information. If you don’t have a laptop, you can get a hard copy, but you will want to get it ahead of time (you’re pushing your luck at this point). Second, look through the docket. That will orient you as to what happens when. Third, read the key elements of the Handbook. Some people want to think that every page of the Handbook is equally important, but that’s not true. The budget material, for example, is largely opaque to those without some experience in accounting. Even if you have experience in accounting, there is no way to tell, just from looking at the numbers, whether these budgets make sense or not. From my perspective, the important parts this year are the Overtures (true every year). If you don’t understand the overtures, find someone to explain them. Next is the report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial Reconciliation. The report has been two years in the making and deserves careful study, whether you agree with certain portions of it or not. Third is the report of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). There is no opportunity to debate the decisions of the SJC, but you ought to at least know what the cases and issues are that have risen to the level of the GA.

The last things to read are the informational reports of the committees and agencies of the GA. This information will be repeated on Thursday afternoon. After that, you can read the budget reports. In total, there are some 634 pages to the Commissioner’s Handbook, but not all of it will need to be read closely. Having at least read the key elements and skimmed over the rest will prepare you to take part in the Assembly and not feel completely lost.

A note about speaking at the Assembly. If it’s your first meeting, it’s probably best just to sit quiet and listen. If you decide to speak, 1) Make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you’re not sure, be quiet. 2) Speak briefly and to the point. Don’t ramble. Prepare some notes to keep you on task. 3) Remember that you’re not the only one desiring to speak, so don’t hog the microphone. 4) Pay careful attention to men such as Fred Greco, David Coffin, and a few others. These men know what they’re talking about and they present a good model for anyone else to follow.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The PCA and Confessional Integrity

In 2002, the PCA adopted what is usually called “good-faith subscription” to the denomination’s doctrinal standards—the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger (WLC) and Shorter Catechisms (WSC). This required changes in the Book of Church Order (BCO) and thus in the practices of presbyteries when examining a candidate for ordination. The amended section of the BCO now reads as follows: The presbytery “shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions.  The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.” (BCO 21-4.f). If such an exception is granted, it is to be noted in the minutes of the presbytery using language prescribed by the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) as follows: “Each presbytery shall also record whether:  a) the candidate stated that he had no differences; or  b) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be merely semantic; or  c) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be more than semantic, but “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4); or  d) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be “out of accord,” that is, “hostile to the system” or “strik[ing] at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4).” (RAO 16.3.e.5).

Since that time, it has become common for candidates to express differences from the standards in three areas: creation, Sabbath observance, and visible representations of Christ. These stated differences have become so common that it seems it is almost expected for candidates to express those differences. (Whether candidates have actually studied the issues involved or have consulted any works defending the confessional statements is another matter.) Those differences are also commonly allowed as exceptions by presbyteries under category (c) above: The difference is “more than semantic, but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine.”

As stated, the matter sounds innocuous. But the denomination has reached the point where a sizeable minority (at least) of the denomination’s ministers believe the confessional standards of the church to be wrong in at least three specific areas. Put another way, these men believe that the confessional standards of the church misrepresent the teaching of the Bible in these areas.

The Westminster standards are not inerrant. The version of the standards used in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America differs significantly from the original formulation regarding the relationship of church and state. Those changes were introduced in the late eighteenth century when the Presbyterian Church in the USA was first formed. There are provisions in the BCO for emending the confessional standards. Yet there has been no move on the part of the minority to propose changes to the standards. Perhaps they believe that the approval of the presbytery for their exceptions is sufficient. But over time, as more and more men take these exceptions, and have them approved, there is a de facto change of the confessional standards. When these kinds of de facto changes take place, there is a muddying of the doctrinal waters.

Now it is likely the case that at the time the PCA was formed (1973), and again when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the PCA (1982), there were men who held these same differences. The matter of confessional change was not brought up at either of those times, though it probably should have been. But another generation or so has passed and there has still been no action. Perhaps, for the sake of our confessional integrity, it is time to begin.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Burning the Bones of the Dead

John Wycliffe was a fourteenth century reformer who is largely credited with one of the first translations of the Bible into English. This activity, and many of the theological views he espoused, were contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. His influence, however, was so widespread that forty-three years after his death, his bones were dug up by church authorities, burned, and the ashes scattered in the river Swift. In his day, that made sense. Heretics were burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s death prevented that. A space of forty-three years between his death and his burning does seem excessive. Luther, born almost exactly a century after Wycliffe’s death, shared many of Wycliffe’s theological views. One supposes that if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to get hold of Luther, he would have met the same end as Wycliffe’s bones.

The church in the West no longer burns heretics. In fact, given the plethora of Protestant denominations, the disagreements among various Catholic orders, and the vast numbers of non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects, and non-denominations, it seems impossible any longer even to identify a heretic, let alone burn one. Yet we have, perhaps, a more effective way of dealing with those whose views do not fit the spirit of the age. If not more effective, it is at least more satisfying to the heresy-hunters of our day. We burn those with theological failings on social media. We denounce them. We denounce their views. We point out, with a fair measure of glee, their shortcomings and their foibles. We hold them up to mockery and ridicule. Like the French Revolution, we lead them to the guillotine and lop off their heads.

But perhaps we ought to rethink our approach. After all, those who began the Reign of Terror in France ended up as its victims. Times had changed. Views had changed. The former revolutionaries were now considered oppressors, rightly to be beheaded. It may well be that, as times and cultural commitments change, those who are now leading the pack in decrying the failures of their forefathers will become the victims of a new social media purge. They, too, may be hanged, drawn-and-quartered, beheaded, burned at the social media stake.

True heresy is rightly opposed. But who defines the heretic? The non-denominations, and most of the non-Protestant, non-Catholic sects have no way of defining heresy, because they have no confessions that define the limits of orthodoxy. It is only those churches that have theological confessions that are able to define heresy. Thus heresy, since it to be opposed, ought rightly to be opposed and condemned, not by individuals with their differing individual standards, but by the church courts, properly called. When the shortcomings of our forefathers are examined in light of our confessions, it may be that their views are properly called heresy, and that heresy is to be condemned. But let it be done decently and in order, not by the rabid pack of social-media hounds who madly tear to shreds that which they often do not even comprehend.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Presbyterians and Order

One of the regular frustrations of teaching is trying to teach students how to do a paper properly. We give them instruction in a class on rhetoric and writing. We tell them to use Turabian for instructions on proper formatting of subheadings, footnotes, and bibliography. We have a seminary style sheet that gives them footnote and bibliography examples for some of the (very few) kinds of things not covered in Turabian. Yet consistently students will write papers in their final year of seminary in which they still will not footnote or do a bibliography in proper form. They seem to make up the format as they go along, because they are often not even consistent with themselves. The reason is that they don’t consult the style sheet or Turabian. They just wing it. From what I’ve heard, this problem is not unique to my school. The sources are available, but unused.

Presbyterian churches are very concerned with order. It is sometimes joked that the “life verse” for Presbyterians is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Presbyterian denominations have a book, usually titled something like Book of Church Order. It explains the principles and structures of the church and lays out guidance for how things are to be done. For example, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has chapters on how candidates for gospel ministry are to be licensed, how they are to be ordained and installed, how congregational meetings are to be conducted, and how church discipline is to be carried out. There are sixty-three chapters in the book, covering just about anything that might be involved in keeping order in the church. Men coming to be licensed are even tested on their knowledge of the BCO.

However, the testing is not usually taken very seriously. I heard of one examination (perhaps apocryphal) in which the examiner asked the candidate if he had a copy of the BCO. The answer was yes. The examiner then asked if the man knew how to use the index. Again, the answer was yes. At that point the examination was concluded. Clearly, the assumption was that if the man ever met with a situation, he would look it up in the index and read the appropriate chapter(s). Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, many ministers do not do that. There are Facebook pages for PCA ministers, and sometimes questions are asked that cause me to ask myself, “Did this man bother to read the BCO?” It seems from the ensuing discussion that he had not. (I serve on the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records for the PCA General Assembly. The review of these records also demonstrates every year that things are often done “indecently and out of order.”) The minister simply “goes with his gut” on how to do things. The result is that he often acts in a manner contrary to the BCO.  The issue gets much more complicated than it should have. This is especially damaging in cases involving church discipline.

Students who don’t consult the recommended style guide for writing papers get marked down, and, in some sense, no real damage is done. But when the BCO (or similar guides in other denominations) is ignored, real damage and real hurt can be the result. Perhaps it is time for ministers to take their vows more seriously and realize that keeping the peace and purity of the church requires them to understand not only the Bible, and whatever confession of faith the church uses. They also need to understand and apply the agreed-upon principles and processes for governing the church to maintain both its peace and its purity.

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.