Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Some Thoughts Toward a Better Understanding of the Old Testament

Most Christians appear to have a limited understanding of or appreciation for the Old Testament. The New Testament makes sense to them, but the Old Testament is a mystery, with its diverse kinds of literature and a seeming lack of connection with the New Testament. Most Bible reading plans don't help this very much. Either they read straight through the Bible, in which the New Testament simply follows the Old, or they have some OT and some NT every day, but with no connection drawn between them. Perhaps one way of rectifying this situation is to use the New Testament as something of a search engine for the Old. This has the dual advantage of connecting the testaments and of clarifying the significance of those connections. 

If we start with Matthew, the first verse gives us a number of Old Testament connections. "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham". There are three connections right away. "The book of the genealogy" connects us to Genesis 5, which begins "This is the book of the generations of Adam." That genealogy takes us from Adam to Noah. The subsequent genealogy in Genesis 11 takes us from Noah to Abraham. So read Matthew 1, Genesis 5, and Genesis 11. "The son of Abraham" connects us to the story of Abraham in Genesis 12-25. This may seem long for some readers, so read Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 21-22, which will give the reader the substance of Abraham's story and clarify the importance of Abraham for the story of Jesus Christ. "The son of David" takes us to the story of David. The Old Testament gives 61 chapters to the story of David (from 1 Samuel 16-1 Kings 2). That doesn't include the 73 Psalms of David in the Book of Psalms. So read 2 Samuel 1-8, which gives us the best part of the story of David. That includes the covenant that God made with David which issues in the promise of the everlasting Davidic king.

The genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Jesus also links to a number of other OT passages. First, we have the mention of Judah and Tamar, which takes the reader to Genesis 38. The mention of Rahab (Matthew 1:5) takes us to Joshua 2, with the beginning of the conquest of Canaan. Verse 5 also mentions Ruth, which takes us to the Book of Ruth. The mention of "the wife of Uriah" takes us to 2 Samuel 11-12 which also tells of the birth of Solomon, thus continuing an explanation of the working out of God's promise to David. 

The mention of Josiah (verse 11) takes us to 2 Kings 22-25, which tells of the glorious reign of Josiah and the sad demise of the kingdom of Judah. The reference to Zerubbabel in verses 12-13 takes us to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The story is summarized in Ezra 1-5. 

Matthew 1 ends with the birth of Jesus and the reference to the Immanuel prophecy from Isaiah 7. To get the context for that pronouncement, the reader can read Isaiah 6-12. 

From the first chapter of Matthew, the reader has been introduced to many of the major themes and persons of the Old Testament. It has also drawn the reader to more than thirty chapters of the Old Testament, and has given the reader some sense of the importance of those passages in the unfolding story of God's redemption. 

A person who has a Bible with cross references can thus easily make connections with OT passages by noting the passages that the NT quotes. When making those connections, it is important to get something of the context for the OT citation. Continuing our use of Matthew, chapter 2 will take the reader to Micah 5 (read chapters 4-6); Hosea 11:1 (read chapters 10-11); Jeremiah 31 (read chapters 30-33). The final reference in Matthew 2 "he would be called a Nazarene" is something of a puzzle, but a reading of 2 Kings 15 and Isaiah 8-9 might go a long way to clearing up the puzzle. 

By following the directions given by the New Testament, the reader can, over time, develop a solid understanding of the Old Testament, and the way it relates to the New.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Preaching to Cows

Heard from a radio preacher this morning (approximate quote): "When my pastor was teaching me to be a preacher, he told me to grab my Bible, and he'd take me out to preach. He gave me a bullhorn and drove out to the country. He told me to open the window and start preaching. At some point I said, 'Pastor, why am I doing this? There's nothing out here but cows!' He said, 'Son, when you're ready for people, I'll take you into town. But for now, just preach!'" It's a funny story, but it teaches a real truth. Preachers need to practice if they're going to improve. 

Now most would-be preachers aren't going to have someone take them out to preach to cows. These beginning preachers will be placed in front of congregations. Very few of them are any good at it when they start. Listening to them is like listening to someone starting to play the violin. It can be excruciatingly painful. But if a man is called to preach, he must practice. And that means that congregations are going to be subjected to beginning preaching.

Some advice for those afflicted congregations. First, welcome him. He's nervous and unsure. Make him feel comfortable. Second, don't overpraise him. You may think it will encourage him, but it will likely encourage him to think he doesn't need to improve. Third, don't overcriticize him. I don't know a single preacher who is not, at some level, insecure about his preaching. Beginning preachers, except the arrogant ones (who are usually full of themselves and probably shouldn't be preaching) are insecure and sensitive about their work. Fourth, don't ignore him. He needs help and encouragement, and maybe some instruction. Those who are good at public speaking, or teaching, might consider offering your assistance. I think it is especially incumbent on overseeing pastors to spend time with beginning preachers after they have preached. Gently point out to him things he did well and things that need to improve. Fifth, don't approach him immediately after the service to point out his errors. Preachers after the service are generally emotionally spent and not in a good position to receive correction. Wait until a more opportune time.

Now some advice for those beginning preachers. First, practice! Preach every chance you can find. If God has called you to preach, preach! Sign up to preach for chapel services at the local rescue mission or homeless shelter, or prison if it's allowed. If you're in seminary and have had some homiletics instruction, and people have approved for you to do pulpit supply in local churches, take every chance you can get. Second, record yourself and listen to yourself afterward. It's painful, but you will hear your mistakes and will learn to do better. Third, work with simple and clear passages. Develop a file of sermons that you can hone over time, and that can be adjusted timewise to fit any time between fifteen and thirty-five minutes. Some places that you might preach may limit you to fifteen minutes. And most preachers, beginning preachers especially, do not do well when they go past thirty-five minutes. Fourth, be open to instruction and criticism. Whether it is given in a spirit of love or not, criticisms can help you get better. 

If you have to preach to cows, preach to cows. Eventually, they'll put you in front of people.

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.