Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?

I can hear the answer now: Same way I read any book, one word after another.

I just re-read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and it got me thinking about how we read our Bibles. He makes a distinction between reading for use and reading to receive. Since he is dealing with literature, he’s really making the distinction between reading literature for the sake of the literature (reading to receive) and reading for some other purpose, such as learning truths about life, or learning a worldview (reading for use).

In some sense the Bible is literature. But I fear that most Christians never read it as such. They read it for use, to use Lewis’s category. They read it in bits and pieces. They read selected verses that they’ve drawn together with the help of a concordance so that they can do word studies, or investigate particular doctrines. That’s not necessarily bad. It is an application of Paul’s statement about “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16ff. But the end result of such an approach can be that the Bible is never really seen as anything more than a mine of doctrinal or practical nuggets: verses that can be committed to memory for some memory plan, or pulled out in case of need, like the lists of recommended verses for different counseling situations.

That may be part of the explanation for why many sermons on the psalms seem to completely miss the psalm itself. The preacher has, instead of seeing it as a literary whole, seen it as a series of doctrinal assertions. It may also explain why many Christians have a hard time reading the Bible. They’ve been taught that they need to read it for use. But as they begin to read it, they realize that the only parts they understand are the handful of verses they’ve memorized. Even the Sunday school stories they learned are a lot more complicated than they remember them to be: there’s a lot more to Noah than a big boat, or to David than the battle with Goliath. And don’t even mention the prophets.

Another part of the difficulty is that the Bible isn’t written at a fifth-grade level. Yet folks seem to think that they ought to be able to understand it the first time through. I’ve been reading it regularly for over forty years and there are parts that only now I think I am beginning to get a real handle on.

So try this the next time you read the Bible. First, lower your expectations. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand. There’s even a lot you’re not going to like. Second, get a Bible without the chapter and verse divisions. When was the last time you read a piece of literature that had page-long chapters subdivided into verses? Then just read it. Read it for its own sake. Read it receptively. Read it the way you would listen to a friend tell you a story. You listen because you want to hear, not because you think what he says is going to change your life, or teach you something you didn’t know before. The Bible will do that, because it’s God’s word. But if you read it just because you think you must, you’re missing out on the joy of it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Study Bibles

On my desk at home I have the following study Bibles, in no particular order: the NLT Study Bible, the NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition), the CEB Study Bible, and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. In my office at school I have at least the following (there may be more, but since I’m not there right now, I’ll probably miss some): the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Harper-Collins Study Bible (1st and 2nd editions), and the Apologetics Study Bible. In the past I have also owned the NIV Study Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, and no doubt others. In addition, there are dozens more study Bibles on the market, some for general use, and many intended for niche markets.

There are two strengths to study Bibles. First, they all include helps to understanding the message of the Bible. These usually include introductions to the books of the Bible, a concordance, maps, timelines, additional theological notes, and brief running comments on the biblical text. In that sense, they are a mini-library for biblical study. For ordinary Christian folks, who have neither the time, the training, nor the patience to labor through larger commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and other reference works, these Bibles can be an immense help for working through what is often a puzzling book.

Second, because of the helps the reader can often be directed away from dangerous misunderstandings of the Bible that are promulgated by various cults. Or the reader may misread something, due to a failure to understand the language. Study Bibles can generally help the reader avoid these kinds of mistakes.

But study Bibles also have shortcomings. In order to keep the size of the Bible within a reasonable scope (the ESV Study Bible really pushes the envelope here, at almost 2,800 pages) something has to give. Generally what is lost is commentary on the text itself. Comments on difficult passages are often the first to suffer in this regard. Comments can be terse to the point of being incomprehensible. The comments are usually written by specialists on the various books of the Bible, who sometimes do not have a good sense of what the ordinary reader needs. In that sense, it can be like the old computer “help” manuals. They were written by the people who wrote the programs, so they did not understand the needs of the computer-illiterate user.

Second, study Bibles can interfere with actually reading the Bible. Having the text of the Bible surrounded with cross-references, commentary, devotional paragraphs, and theological notes easily distracts the reader from actual reading. They are Bibles, as the name says, for study, not for reading.
Do I recommend study Bibles? Yes, for study. My current preferences are for the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. The former is a significant improvement over its previous edition, with better and clearer commentary, as well as improved additional materials. The latter, while being somewhat hobbled by the KJV, is a very fine resource for family worship.

However, in addition to a study Bible, I also recommend a reading Bible. My preference here is for the ESV Reader’s Bible. Until you begin to read a Bible such as this one, you will not realize how distracting verse numbers, chapter divisions, and textual notes can be to the progress of your reading. It is much easier to read continuously without those distractions, and that continuous reading helps the reader to get a good grasp of the big picture of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Final Note on the 43rd PCA GA: RPR

RPR is shorthand for the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. Being a connectional denomination, the PCA exercises “review and control” by means of higher courts (presbyteries and GA) reviewing the actions of lower courts (sessions and presbyteries). The purpose of RPR is to check that everything that the presbyteries do is proper and is done properly. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is not proper, this is considered an exception of substance. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is proper, but is not done properly, that is considered an exception of form. When RPR finishes its work, all exceptions of form are sent directly to the presbyteries. All exceptions of substance are brought to the GA for review and approval. This year, there were three particular exceptions of substance that drew debate. Two separate presbyteries were cited for exceptions of substance in that they approved men who hold to paedocommunion (the idea that young children, even very young children, may properly take the Lord’s Super). This view is directly contrary to our doctrinal standards, but how significant a departure it is, is a matter of debate. In both cases, RPR brought it as an exception of substance, though with significant minorities voting against the citation. In both cases, a minority report from RPR was also filed, asking that the exception of substance be removed. In both cases, the minority report was supported by the GA, so in the end, neither presbytery was cited.

We appear to have reached the point in the PCA where the paedocommunion view is being increasingly tolerated. This is a serious mistake, as the view weakens our commitment to our doctrinal standards, and undercuts the doctrine of the sacraments as it is laid out in our standards. For those who want a more detailed discussion of the issues, I recommend this:

The other major exception of substance concerned a presbytery that ordained a man who wasn’t entirely sure that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women as elders. RPR brought it as an exception of substance. Again, there was a minority report, arguing that the presbytery should not be cited. In this case, the minority report was defeated. Two things about this are troubling to me. First, there is the fact that a majority of the presbytery did not find this man’s uncertainty problematic. This man was going to be teaching and preaching in a denomination that holds that the ordination of women to church office is contrary to the Scriptures. If he is uncertain on that point, on what else is he uncertain? Second, this case indicates that there is an undercurrent in the PCA that is not opposed to women in church office. The long-term effects of such an undercurrent will not contribute to the long-term health of the church.

However, the presbytery has now been cited, and must respond to the GA next year with an explanation of their actions.

In general, it was a peaceable assembly. My own sense, however, is that the assembly tries to do too much too quickly. As a result, many things do not get done well.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Results of the Overtures Committee

The overtures that had been submitted to the GA were given to the Overtures Committee. This committee reviews the overture and submits their recommendation to the Assembly as a whole. The Assembly can adopt the recommendation of the committee, they can overturn the recommendation of the committee, they can recommit the overture to the committee for further discussion, or they can commit the overture to the next year’s committee for perfection. I list here the recommendations from the committee regarding each overture and the action taken by the Assembly.

Overture 1, requested a change in the rules regarding a judicial commission. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 2 and 9 requested a study committee regarding recreations on the Sabbath. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overture 3 requested a change in the wording of baptismal vows. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 4-6 asked for changes in various presbytery boundaries. Those overtures are given to the Mission to North America Committee for execution.

Overture 7 asked for a change that would require church officers to testify in judicial cases (sort of an anti-5th Amendment change). The Committee recommended that this overture be approved, modified by some changes in the language. This recommendation was, after considerable debate, rejected by the Assembly, nullifying the overture.

Overture 8 requested some changes in the BCO regarding the treatment of church officers without call. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

The overture regarding the establishment of a provisional presbytery in Paraguay was given to the Mission to the World Committee for execution.

There was one overture and several personal resolutions that desired memorializing particular men who had died since the last GA. These were all approved, both by the Committee and by the Assembly.

Finally, there was a personal resolution from TEs Sean Michael Lucas of Grace Presbytery and J. Ligon Duncan of Mississippi Valley Presbytery (the text of that resolution can be read here: This resolution was given to the Overtures Committee to deal with. After some nine hours of occasionally heated debate, the Committee brought a recommendation that the resolution be referred to the next GA, with added grounds for that referral. Those grounds can be read here: This was taken up by the Assembly after the worship service on Thursday evening. After about an hour and a half of debate, the Assembly voted to sustain the Committee’s recommendation. This was followed by a time of prayer. A fuller description can be read here:

And such were the actions of the Overtures Committee of the Forty-third General Assembly of the PCA.

The Mechanics of PCA GA

Those of you who were hoping for my post-mortem on GA will have to wait a couple of days, until I have had more time to process it.

This is a description for those who have never been to GA, expect never to go, and yet are somewhat curious about what goes on there. (Yes, I know. All twelve of you.)

The Assembly begins with a worship service on Tuesday evening. The departing moderator preaches, and the Lord’s Supper is observed. Following the worship service, the business begins. The first item is the announcement of attendance and determining of a quorum. (for the quorum requirements, see PCA BCO 14-5). This year the attendance was 991 TEs and 329 REs, which is fairly typical, though a bit higher than the last few years. Ostensibly, there should be an equal number of TEs and REs, but a 3-1 TE margin is typical.

After the announcement of the quorum, a new moderator is elected. The office alternates between RE and TE. Since last year’s moderator was a TE, this year’s moderator was RE Jim Wert, about whom I know almost nothing, except that he did a fine job as moderator. After the election of the moderator, clerks and parliamentarians are appointed, and the meeting is recessed for the evening.

Wednesday begins with the report of the stated clerk: statistics on the denomination, communications of various sorts, etc. Then the Interchurch Relations Committee gives its report, and we hear greetings from representatives of various denominations with which the PCA has fraternal relations.
After the report of IRC, the various committees of commissioners give their reports. These include an informational report from the permanent committee or agency, and the approval of recommendations for the coming year. These tend to be brief and for the most part non-controversial. The committee reports that generate debate are those of the Overtures Committee and the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. I’ll discuss those in the next few posts.

The last committee to report is the Committee on Thanks. This expresses thanks to the host presbytery and all those involved in making the GA run smoothly. RE Mel Duncan from Second PCA in Greenville, SC has become something of an unofficial permanent member of the Committee of Thanks, because he writes a good report, full of local color.

Though the Assembly is docketed to go through Friday at noon, the last several years there has been a concerted effort to finish early. This year, everything concluded about 11:45 Thursday evening.

In the next two posts, I’ll give my post-mortem on this year’s GA.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The PCA GA: What is it?

The PCA GA is the annual denominational meeting for the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA is the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, though it is only about one-sixth the size of the largest: the Presbyterian Church (USA).


In large part, PCA GA is a convention, much like a business or academic convention. There is a large Exhibit Hall in which the PCA Permanent Committees and Agencies (to be explained later) have informational and promotional booths set up. Other institutions have displays as well. As might be expected, there is a bookstore run by the Committee on Discipleship Ministries (one of the Permanent Committee). In addition to the exhibit hall, there are seminars on various topics related to ministry and missions scheduled around the business sessions.

Business Meeting

The PCA at the national level has five Permanent Committees: Administration, Discipleship Ministries, Mission to the World, Mission to North America, and Reformed University Ministries. In addition, it has five agencies: Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary, PCA Foundation, PCA Retirement and Benefits, Inc., and Ridge Haven Conference and Retreat Center. Each year, these committees and agencies submit reports, with recommendations for the coming year, to the Assembly. These reports are reviewed by ad hoc committees of commissioners (CoC: committees made up at each GA out of attendees from the various churches). These committees are made up of one person from each presbytery (82 presbyteries total). Most of the time, fewer than half of the presbyteries are represented in these committees of commissioners. These CoCs review the report of the committee or agency then present their report to the Assembly as a whole for action. For the most part, these reports and the votes on them are pro forma.

Court of the Church

Part of the responsibility of the GA is to handle cases that come to it from the lower courts (sessions and presbyteries). These cases come in one of two ways. They may come from the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). In these cases, the SJC has already rendered a verdict in the case. It is, however, the responsibility of the GA as a whole to either approve or disapprove the judgment of the SJC.
The other way in which cases come to the Assembly is through the Report of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR). If some exception of substance is taken with some aspect of a presbytery’s actions, then the GA as a whole must deal with that case. Most of these are pro forma, as the Assembly will often simply go with the recommendation of the CRPR. But in cases where there is not a unified report from the CRPR, the case may induce a fair amount of discussion at GA.

Finally, in some sense, the GA is a church. The meeting of the Assembly is opened with a worship service (Tuesday evening), and each other evening of the meeting (Wednesday and Thursday) there is also a worship service.

It should be obvious that with all that to be done, and three-and-a-half days to do it, the schedule can be pretty hectic.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Wrap-Up on GA Overtures

TVP and Sabbath Recreation

North Texas Presbytery produced an overture urging the formation of a study committee to rethink the “recreation clauses” in the Westminster Standards’ treatment of Sabbath observance. Tennessee Valley Presbytery duplicated the overture, but added a brief paper. In this paper, it is argued that there is neither a direct command against Sabbath recreation, nor is there a good and necessary consequence argument against Sabbath recreation. The chief problem with the paper was that the paper utterly failed to address the essential question: What is recreation? The paper specifically rejects dealing with the historical situation: “It is our belief that the case for or against recreation on the Sabbath must be made from Scripture. For that reason we do not enter into the historical situation that gave rise to the Assembly dealing with this specific matter.” But it is only in the historical particulars that we can find out what the divines meant by the word “recreations.” Unless we understand what that word means in the context, we have no business stating a difference with the Standards, because we don’t know what we are differing from. We might even be in full agreement with what we think we differ from.

There are more problems with the TVP paper, but I’ve already said enough. In sum, I don’t think the TVP paper forwards the discussion at all.

From the Potomac to Paraguay

Potomac Presbytery has brought an overture asking that a commission be formed in order to form “a provisional Presbytery in Paraguay with the goal of establishing an indigenous Presbyterian and Reformed Church.” While I have no principial objection to the idea, the supporting rationale makes me wonder if maybe this step is coming a little too early in the process. As far as I can tell from the rationale (which is less forthcoming than it should be), there is one church and three active church plants. But we have no idea of the size of any of these works. We have no idea what “active” means. There is one pastor, so it’s not clear who is doing the church plants. There is one pastoral candidate. So there seems to be a total of four churches, three of them plants, and two pastors, one of which is only a candidate. I appreciate the vision for the future, but it seems things in Paraguay need to get more established before the PCA starts talking about establishing a provisional presbytery there.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Overture 8: On TEs, REs, and Deacons Without Call

According to this overture, there are currently about 300 ministers in the PCA (out of a total of about 4,400) without call. That means that they have served a church (or in some other capacity requiring ordination) in the past, but are not currently serving in a situation that requires ordination. Frankly, I’m surprised the total is that low. Given that the PCA has about 1,700 churches (including church plants) there must be a large number of men serving as missionaries, RUM campus ministers, chaplains, etc. Ministers can be without call for a number of reasons, but some men seem to be perpetually without call. As the BCO currently reads, a presbytery needs a two-thirds vote to divest a man who is without call for an extended period. This overture seeks to change the BCO so that ministers without call need to report to presbytery annually. If a man remains without call for three years, the presbytery shall divest him of office, though it may, by majority vote extend his “without call” status for another year.

This strikes me as an eminently sensible change. The fact is, men who are without a call for an extended period, particularly if that period extends past the three-year mark, are usually men that churches do not find acceptable. I remember a few decades ago being in a presbytery with a man who had been without call for about five years. After he finished seminary, he had served briefly in a small church. It had not gone well, and within a year or so, he found himself without call. Though he applied for as many ministerial positions as he could, somehow he was never the right fit. Finally after more than five years, the presbytery divested him without censure. It was hard on him, but it was the right move. This overture makes such a change a little easier. It also means that a man must keep his presbytery informed about his activities.

As for the deacons and elders part, I have some sympathy with the changes, which essentially mirror those of the minister. The elder or deacon must report annually to his session. His official relation as officer in the church may be dissolved by a majority vote of the congregation. However, many churches in the PCA rotate elders and deacons, so a man may be inactive as an elder or deacon for a larger number of reasons than simply that he has become unacceptable to the church. A man may, for example, be a ruling elder in one church from which he moves to another town. The church to which he moves may have a full complement of elders, so he essentially becomes inactive, or at most functions unofficially as an elder.

Ultimately, I wish that Tidewater Presbytery had divided this into two overtures: one dealing with ministers and one dealing with ruling elders and deacons. I’m interested to see how this overture will be dealt with by GA.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Overture 7 from New Hope PCA, Fairfax, VA

Ordinarily, overtures will come to the GA from presbyteries, but Potomac Presbytery rejected this overture by a vote of 18 for and 24 against.

It has already received substantive treatment online. Here is a two-part argument against the overture: Here is an extended argument in favor of the overture, responding to the critique from the Ref21 blog:

The essence of the overture is that church officers (that is, ministers, ruling elders, and deacons), when they have been accused in a church court, “shall be required to testify before the court of original jurisdiction.” For example, if charges are brought against a ruling elder in a church, he would be compelled to testify in the case. Given the current reading of the PCA’s Book of Church Order, that would not be the case.

The argument against the overture draws heavily on criminal and civil court precedent, going back to the New Testament and then to the period of the Westminster Assembly and subsequent Presbyterian history. The response makes the case that the church court is neither a civil nor a criminal court, and that most of the material that the critique brings forward is really immaterial. To my mind, the defense of the overture makes a compelling case. There is one significant addition that is made in the defense of the overture, having to do with a church judicial case when the testimony of the accused and the results of the case may influence a civil or criminal proceeding. That addition would be the proviso that if civil or criminal proceedings either have begun or are likely in the case, the church court will hold off on its proceedings until the civil/criminal case has been adjudicated. The church court may suspend the officer from his official functions until the ecclesiastical proceedings are complete.

My own sense is that this overture (with the additional proviso) would be a wise addition to the BCO. Anyone who has ever been involved in a church judicial case (at least in the PCA context) probably knows the frustration of dealing with a man who essentially “pleads the 5th.” The two-fold consideration brought by this overture (that a church officer may be compelled to testify, and that ecclesiastical proceedings be postponed until civil/criminal proceedings have been completed) will not solve all difficulties faced by church courts, but it will solve a significant number of them. 

I am afraid, however, that the overture will meet a fate at GA similar to the one it met with in Potomac Presbytery.