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What Could Be More Excellent?

September 11, 2012

I would venture to say that the name of Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587) is not particularly well-known, but maybe it should be.  Along with Zacharius Ursinus, he was one of the principal authors of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.  Both men were still in their twenties at the time.  But even much before this, the heart of Olevianus had been stirred to learn and teach others about God:

When I was just a boy, I was certainly inflamed with the desire for learning and teaching others about God.  It seemed to be just a small event, but in reality it was significant.  I came upon the writing of a certain learned man in which he was exhorting the youth to what amounted to this very purpose.  There is nothing more excellent, he said, than to teach people about God, the creation of the human race, the fall into sin, reconciliation and restoration through the Son of God (the promised seed of the woman who will bruise the head of the serpent), etc.  What he was saying seemed to me altogether holy and godly, and by these words it pleased the Lord to ignite in me sparks of a fervent desire to learn and eventually teach others, either in the school or in the church.  In my mind’s eye I pictured groups of young people in the school and learners in the church.  What could be more excellent, I thought, than to have there before you not only young people but also gray-haired farmers, who, like you, have been banished from Paradise because of sin, and, like Adam, cultivate the earth – men revered for their old age and as fathers, and many women also, revered as mothers?  If the Lord wishes you to speak His Word to these people and to teach them about God, the creation and preservation of the world, the cunning of the serpent who tempted humanity, and the promised salvation through the seed of the woman, what could happen to you that would be more gratifying?  What more could God wish for?  With out knowledge of such things, people live more miserably than brute beasts.

[Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, 1576, translated by Lyle D. Bierma, Vol. 2, Classic Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2009), 6.]

A Kentucky Baptist take on J. C. Ryle

September 8, 2012

A few nights ago, I was perusing century-old articles from the Western Recorder, the official state denominational paper of Southern Baptists in Kentucky,  when I discovered a few gems regarding Bishop J. C. Ryle:

“One good Protestant is left among the Bishops of England who has not bowed the knee to the Baal of apism.  Dr. Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool, refused to license a curate unless he would pledge himself not to hear confessions.”

Western Recorder, January 13, 1898

And again:

Bishop Ryle, of Liverpool, is one of the few low churchmen which a succession of high church prime ministers have left in England.  In a recent speech he said that the most painful symptom which marks the present age is the increasing indifference to all distinctive doctrines in every part of the land.
Western Recorder, January 27, 1898

A century ago, Baptist newspapers had a markedly different look than their modern-day counterparts.  Published weekly, The Western Recorder featured five columns per page with small text.  Doctrine and preaching received heavy emphasis and an entire page was regularly reserved for sermons from preaching stalwarts like Charles H. Spurgeon.  Such publications were often the sole source of religious news from around the world for Southern Baptists.  Kentucky’s Baptist paper, under the editorial leadership of T. T. Eaton, often spoke highly of the orthodox Christian champions from across the Atlantic.  Many paper subscribers surely found such examples of Christian charity a welcome change of pace from the livid denominational controversy that predominated most of the other pages of the paper in 1898!

The Heart of the Problem

August 30, 2012

If you were to take a survey with the question, “What is wrong with the church?”, I suppose you would receive a variety of answers.  Some would say it is the church’s lack of relevance, while others would point out its lack of depth.  Some would say it is a lack of expositional preaching, and others would trace it to what they view as an unhealthy church polity.  Historically speaking, people will try to trace the “problems” they encounter in the church today to a particular source.  The potential sources are innumerable and will vary according to one’s convictions and school of thought:  The Calvinism of Calvin, the Arminianism of Arminius, Pelagius’s doctrine of the will, Augustine’s understanding of grace, the Dispensationalism of Darby, the Liberalism of Schleiermacher, the theology of Aquinas, the “Neo-Evangelicalism” of Carl Henry, the “New Methods” of Finney, the seeds of church-state union under Constantine, etc.

How do we sort through all of this?  Who’s right?  Where is the real problem to be located?  To answer such a question, I would begin by directing the reader to an insightful paragraph in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church:

Nor must we think the degeneracy of the church began with her union with the state.  Corruption and apostasy cannot attach to any one fact or personage, be he Constantine or Gregory I. or Gregory VII.  They are rooted in the natural heart of man.  They revealed themselves, at least in the germ, even in the apostolic age, and are by no means avoided, as the condition of America proves, by the separation of the two powers.  We have among ourselves almost all the errors and abuses of the old world, not collected indeed in any one communion, but distributed among our various denominations and sects.  The history of the church presents from the beginning a twofold development of good and of evil, an incessant antagonism of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, the mystery of godliness and the mystery of iniquity, Christianity and Antichrist.  According to the Lord’s parables of the net and of the tares among the wheat, we cannot expect a complete separation before the final judgment…

[Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, first published 1867, reprint (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 94-95.

To sum up, “Corruption and apostasy…are rooted in the natural heart of man.”  Therefore, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16).  May God help us to do just that.

The Life of Faith

August 9, 2012

William Romaine’s trilogy, The Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith, was originally published as three separate works. The Life of Faith was published in 1764, The Walk of Faith followed in two parts in 1771, and The Triumph of Faith appeared in 1795, shortly before Romaine’s death. As with any book, new or old, opinions of its merits are varied.  Even though J. C. Ryle could say, “I am… content with such teachings about sanctification as I find in… ‘The Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith’ of William Romaine,” John Wesley, on the other hand, referred to The Life of Faith as “a hotch potch as I have ever seen and is a brimful of Antinomianism (as are all Mr Romaine’s writings).”

The “Monthly Review” of 1764 said, in regard to The Life of Faith, “There is a certain class of readers which, no doubt, will look upon this as a sweet treatise, a comfortable treatise, a precious treatise, a soul-reviving, soul-refreshing treatise &c. To us it appears a silly treatise, a stupid treatise, a nonsensical treatise, a fanatical treatise.”  [Cited by Tim Shenton in An Iron Pillar’: The Life and Times of William Romaine, (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 201, 263.]

I would call it a soul-reviving and soul-refreshing treatise:

When corruption rise, temptations are strong, enemies numerous, dangers on every side, that is the time to glorify Christ, by making use of his promised strength.  Then put thy trust in the captain of thy salvation, and fear not.  Look unto Jesus, and look at nothing but him.  The battle is his.  He will fight for thee, and thou shalt hold thy peace.  Leave him to direct all, to do all, and to finish all relating to it, and then, as he can get all the glory, thou , thou shalt see what a salvation he will bring thee.  O that thy faith did but reach to the extent of his promises!  How successful would be thy spiritual warfare, such victories over thine enemies, corruptions so subdued, the world so crucified, Satan so defeated, as thou canst now scarce believe.  The Lord increase thy faith!  Look up to him for it: because, as thy faith increases, let the battle grow hotter and hotter, thou wilt find thyself safer, and have more reason to give thanks to God, through Jesus Christ thy Lord.

[William Romaine, The Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith, Reprint (Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press), 57-58.]

William Williams’s Description of a “Dispirited” Prayer Meeting

August 7, 2012

The Welshman William Williams, Pantycelyn (1717-1791), author of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” and other hymns, was converted to Christ under the preaching of Howell Harris in the Talgarth churchyard in 1738.  Though he had been brought up as a Nonconformist, he was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1740 by Nicholas Claggett, Bishop of St. David’s, to the curacies of Llanwrtyd and Llanddewi-Abergwesyn.  Along with Daniel Rowland, with whom he later served as an assistant at Llangeitho, he was to become one of the great leaders of the Evangelical Revival in Wales.  The Welsh Evangelicals, or “Methodists,” as they were called, were largely Calvinistic.  Thus they were called the Calvinistic Methodists.

The general tenor of the Calvinistic Methodists was one of warmth and zeal, but this did not mean that they were beyond facing darkness, doubt, and discouragement in their work.  The year 1762 was one of particular blessing, but it was preceded by a low ebb.  Williams’s description of a prayer that was offered in a disheartened prayer meeting at that time is quite remarkable:

At last, forced by cowardice, unbelief, and the onslaughts of Satan, we resolved to give up our special meeting, and now we were about to offer a final prayer, fully intending never again to meet thus in fellowship.  But it is when man reaches the lowest depths of unbelief that God imparts faith, and when man has failed, that God reveals Himself.  So here with us, in such straits, on the brink of despair, with the door shut on every hope of success, God Himself entered into our midst, and the light of day from on high dawned upon us.  One of the brethren, yes, the most timid of us all, the one who was strongest in he belief that God would never visit us, while in prayer, was stirred in his spirit and laid hold powerfully on heaven as one who would never let go.  His tongue spoke unusual words, his voice was raised, his spirit was aflame.  He pleaded, he cried to God, he struggled, he wrestled in earnest like Jacob, in agony of his soul.  The fire took hold of others, all were awakened, the coldest to the most heedless took hold and were warmed; the spirit of struggling and wrestling fell on all, we went with him into the battle; with him we laid hold upon God, His attributes, His Word and His promises, resolving that we would never let go our hold until all our desire should be satisfied.

Williams described the revival that followed in these words:

The sermons were a delight, the listeners plentiful, thoughtful, and eager to listen.  There were some convicted in every service….Now the tone of the whole district was changed.

[William Williams, The Experience Meeting, pp. 8-10, cited by Eifion Evans in Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 313-314.]

“O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us the work that You did in their days, in the days of old” (Psalm 44:1).  “Let Your work appear to Your servants and Your majesty to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and confirm for us the work of our hands; yes confirm the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:16-17).  Amen.

Martin Bucer and the Plurality of Elders

June 22, 2012

Though he is, perhaps, too often overlooked and underestimated, Martin Bucer seems to have been right in the middle of everything during Reformation.  He was won over to the cause after hearing Martin Luther at the Heidelberg disputation in 1518.  In 1521 he left the Dominican convent in that city and obtained a papal dispensation from his monastic vows.  That same year also found him in attendance at the Diet of Worms.  In 1523 he began his ministry at Strasbourg, the main sphere of his life’s work.  As a leader of the Reformation in that city he attended the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, taking the side of Zwingli.  (It was there that Luther shook his hand, smiled, and pointed at him, saying, “You are a good-for-nothing knave.”)

From the years 1538-1541 he was a mentor and friend to the young John Calvin, then in exile from Geneva.  It was Bucer who encouraged Calvin to serve as a pastor to the French refugees in Strasbourg, and Calvin lived in Bucer’s house for a time.  When the circumstances in Strasbourg turned against Bucer in 1549, he accepted an invitation to England, where he lived for a time with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and was subsequently appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.  His critique of the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), contributed to the more strongly Protestant revision of 1552.  Before its publication, however, Bucer died at Cambridge in February of 1551.

In 1538 he published a “little book” with the title Concerning the true soul-care and the correct shepherd-service, how the same should be established and executed in the church of Christ.  The Banner of Truth published an English translation of this work in 2009 under the title Concerning the True Care of Souls.  Among other things, Bucer discusses the benefits of having a plurality of elders and the different strengths that different men bring to the table so that the church might be built up.

The Lord shares among man the gifts necessary for the pastoral office.

To one he gives the skill of teaching clearly and understandably, while not endowing him with so much grace in exhorting; to another he gives the ability to exhort warmly and seriously, without also enabling him to be powerful in the teaching and exposition of the scriptures.  To another he grants an especially effective enthusiasm in chastising and disciplining, though he may not be able to achieve much in either teaching or exhorting.  One the Lord has endowed with a fine upright and honest spirit to care for the whole congregation and to provide timely provision and protection where Satan wants to break in, while he does not have great abilities otherwise, either in teaching or exhorting.  There are those whom the Lord has appointed to exercise their ministry conscientiously and usefully to the bruised and wounded, warmly and powerfully comforting them and applying the right measure of gravity and discipline, but who are not particularly effective in other aspects of the pastoral office.

Again, he says,

The church’s ministry requires many sorts of gifts, therefore it is necessary to have many sorts of people in it.

But because the Lord does not give all these gifts and skills just to one, two, or three, churches have always had a good number of elders, and these not all the same in what they do and what they are.  Because although all elders are to be well thought of and trusted and outstandingly adorned with all virtues, this does not mean that they have to be all the same in what they do and what they are, or that they are all skilled and equipped with the same gifts or one sort of gift.  This is why the ancient churches did not only ordain to this ministry those who were learned or eloquent, but also other spiritual, sensible and zealous men.  In each one was recognized what God had particularly bestowed on him for the building up of the church.  Thus in one it was recognized that from his youth he had been brought up in the faith and and in the scripture, as Paul recognized in the case of Timothy; in another, that he was eloquent and powerful in the defence of the faith, like Apollos.  In another it was recognized that he was of a kind and lovely spirit, someone from whom discipline and chastisement would be willingly accepted.  Thus in each one something in particular was recognized which would be of service in the care of souls.

– Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, trans. by Peter Beale, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 34, 55-56.

Is the Internet Killing Religion?

June 3, 2012

Internet killed the Bethlehem Star?

That was the question being discussed last week when The Washington Post’s On Faith debuted a series of perspective articles on the future of religion in the internet age.  They invited three contributors to provide their own unique answers to the question of whether the internet is undermining religion in America. Hemant Mehta answers in the affirmative, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. answers in the negative while acknowledging the new challenges that new technology brings, and Rachel Held Evans‘s view is largely inconsequential for my tastes.

Surprisingly, I found atheist blogger Mehta’s article to be the most thought provoking out of the three, but I guess that fact shouldn’t be too surprising  considering this guy has actually “sold his soul” on ebay (I’m not gonna explain it here, just Google it if you’re interested).  Mehta begins his article by referencing a Josh McDowell statement that appeared in Relevant Magazine last year; McDowell claimed that the medium of the internet has pretty much “Changed Everything.”

I’ve highlighted some quotes from McDowell:

“The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not.”

“If [atheists around 15 years ago] wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university.”

“I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”
Source: ChristianPost

Mehta at least appreciates McDowell’s candor in assessing how the internet may yet prove to be a nearly insurmountable challenge for the propagation of a Christian witness to our children and youth.  A proud atheist, Metha gleefully celebrates how increasing “open access to knowledge” via the internet medium may well prove to be the “death knell for religion as we know it.”

Mehta’s analysis of the situation is poignant and possibly prophetic:

It wasn’t long ago when statements made in a pulpit were simply assumed to be true.  Now, a child with an iPhone in the pew can find ample evidence contradicting whatever the men of God are saying.  That “true story” your pastor is telling?  Snopes.com debunked it long ago.  Gay marriage is destructive, he says? Thousands of YouTube videos made by gays and lesbians in love — as well as other Christians — can attest otherwise. Evolution is a liberal conspiracy? TalkOrigins.org will show you how to respond to every argument on the Creationist side.  Abstinence-only sex education is working? Not according to the new scientific study you just read. . . .

Church used to be a one-way street. The pastor fed you information and that was that.  The Internet upended that model and gave people the opportunity to talk back.  Now, they can weigh their own arguments on matters of faith with that of people who disagree. . . .

This is why atheists love the Internet. We can tell Christians the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. We can question the dogma they’ve simply accepted all their lives. We can expose religious frauds. We can explain the many unfortunate consequences of unquestioned belief. The Internet is blind faith’s worst nightmare.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 famously states that “There is nothing new under the sun.”  That is a true statement, but periodically something new really does show up that forever changes the way the world works.  Mehta raised a fascinating point about how the pastor’s funny little story or factoid he may have been repeating for the past 15 years can be quickly dismissed by a kid with a mobile device and a Google search.  A preacher used to be able to wield some control over his own message, but with the advent of camera phones, anything he might say can go viral on somebody’s YouTube account (either in or out of context).  Whereas congregants in past years may have been encouraged to take notes of the sermon for their personal study and devotion, the unleashing of sermons on the internet can open a pastor up to the critiques of the entire online community.

It’s clear that the stakes have already been raised for preachers across the world.  Gone may be the days when the preacher could get away with some made-up or loosely-remembered bit of rhetorical gold.  The internet has leveled the playing field between the seminary trained preacher and his congregation.  Furthermore, spiritual sojourns may not bother to make their pastor their go-to-guy for their theological questions when they view Wikipedia and an online forum as more trustworthy sources of authority.

Unlike Mehta, I don’t believe  evangelical Christianity in America is going to disappear anything soon.  As Al Mohler notes, “a digital preacher is not going to preach your funeral, nor visit you in the hospital.”  Nevertheless, Christians must recognize the new challenges of the Digital Age.  We should not be so careless as to say things or quote stories until we’ve first followed due diligence to make sure that information is reliable.  Reaching the culture, and most importantly our young people, is going to require that Christians both preach a robust gospel message and pay attention to the pulse of the internet so that we might get a better idea about how people think and act.  To quote Mohler once more:

The Internet is now the first and most immediate source of news, the most accessible form of information, and the most efficient way of reaching people. To be absent from the Internet is to be absent from many of the most important conversations and debates of our times. . . . Of course, the dark side is always close at hand. Christians have known for 2,000 years that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” The same holds true for the Internet. There is no way to avoid the Internet and remain relevant to the cultural conversation. . . . You might say that Christians are called to be on the Internet, but not of it.

Knowledge can be a wonderful thing, but we must not forget that humanity’s first parents were seduced by “The Tree of Knowledge.”  Perhaps, we’ve been repeating their error ever since. There is no clear guide on just we ought to go about being “on the Internet, but not of it,” but neither are there always clear guides on how we ought to be “in the world, but not of it.” Only Jesus Christ has ever walked that fine line perfectly, and we could sure use more of His grace as we engage in our daily walks both online and offline.