Rob Sturdy: What is the Bible?

20 12 2011

This was originally prepared for our new believers class

The great Baptist preacher from England, Charles Spurgeon, once remarked:

 “I was thoughtless like others; I laughed religion to scorn, and those who attended to it; my language was, Let us eat, drink and enjoy the sunshine of life, but now through Christ Jesus I find the Bible a honeycomb, which hardly needs to be pressed to let the drops of honey run out; it is so sweet and precious to my taste that I wish I could sit down and feast on my Bible forever.”[1]

Our topic is what is the Bible, and to that end Spurgeon’s quote helps us significantly as we seek to understand more fully what it is.  To put it quit simply, it is a feast for the soul, it is food that endures and satisfies.But in order to be truly helpful we need to pull the Bible out of the abstraction of Spurgeon, no matter how beautiful and speak more concretely as to what the Bible is.  So first we must pick up our Bible!  The Bible you have in your hands is an English translation of two primary languages, Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament.  If you open your Bible to the Table of Contents you will notice that the Bible is broken up into two major sections.  These sections are the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament.  And though your Table of Contents will not make these divisions, you can further divide both Testaments further if you wish.  Perhaps you might want to take a pen or highlighter and make these divisions yourself.

The Old Testament

The Pentateuch, The Torah, The Books of Moses

Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

The Books of History

Joshua

Judges

Ruth

1 & 2 Samuel

1 & 2 Kings

1 & 2 Chronicles

Ezra

Nehemiah

Esther

Wisdom Literature

Job

Psalm

Proverbs

Ecclesiastes

Song of Solomon

The Major Prophets

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Lamentations

Ezekiel

Daniel

The Minor Prophets

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Jonah

Micah

Hahum

Habakkuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi

The New Testament

They Synoptic Gospels

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John’s Gospel

Acts

Paul’s Letters to the Churches

Romans

1 & 2 Corinthians

Galatians

Ephesians

Philippians

Colossians

1 & 2 Thessalonians

Paul’s Letters to Individuals

1 & 2 Timothy

Titus

Philemon

Hebrews

The Catholic Epistles

1 & 2 Peter

1, 2, 3, John

Jude

Apocalyptic

Revelation

The above list does, in a bare bones way answer the question “what is the Bible?” However, we as Christians would like to say that the Bible is more than this.  As Anglicans, we agree that at the bare minimum the Bible “contains all things necessary for salvation” and “whatever is not read in the Bible or can be proven by the Bible is not required to be believed by any man” (Article VI).  What does this mean?  It means as Anglicans we believe that God has revealed enough of His truth within the pages of the Bible to lead a man or woman to saving knowledge of God.  Furthermore, as Anglicans we believe that the Church is not free to lay requirements (whether beliefs, morality, or actions) upon individuals that cannot be explicitly or implicitly proven by Scripture.  The presupposition behind these assertions is that God has spoken authoritatively in the pages of Scripture on salvation, faith, history, morality, and life.  This is not all that one can say about Scripture.  In fact the clergy of this church believe far more about Scripture than this.  But we believe this is a good starting point.

One thing we must say before we go further is our commitment to the Scriptures as ademocratizing force in the congregation.  By this we mean everyone has a Bible, everyone can read along with us in the Bible as we preach, and each and everyone person who reads along is free to confirm our interpretation or challenge it.  The pastors of a church are set apart to preach the word, but they are not above the word.  Their actions must be consistent with the word.  Therefore, this doctrine of scripturekeeps pastors from becoming dictators by holding them accountable to God by his word and the collective interpretation of the church (past and present). 

These are some large truths that the Anglicans are making about Scripture.  How are they justified?  To go back to our theme for this confirmation course, “what is the reason for the hope you have in…” to believe in the authority of the Bible?

Four Reasonable Arguments for the Authority of the Bible:

  • Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus treated the Old Testament as authoritative.  Therefore the Old Testament is an authoritative word of God.  What about the New Testament?  The Apostles were charged to “teach everything that Jesus taught them”.  They claim to have done so.  Their teachings are consistent with the meaning of the Old Testament as explained by Jesus.
  • Internal Consistency: Within the 15,000 manuscripts we have of the Old and New Testaments the level of contradiction within them is slender and inconsequential (number of angels at the tomb for instance).  As opposed to the level of variation within Aristotle which is literally in the thousands, and on major philosophical points.  Consider the mann in which we received Aristotle.  For example, Felix Grayeff’s article “The Problem of the Genesis of Aristotle’s Text” published inPhronesisA Journal for Ancient Philosophy outlines the process by which we have received Aristotle’s works.  Aristotle died, his library (including his writings) go to Theoprhastus who bequeathed them to Neleus who took them to his native Corsica.  Neleus’ relatives in inherited Aristotle and greatly neglected the books and journals.  They were hidden for a time to escape the King of Pergamon and were buried under ground where the suffered irreparable damage due to moth and moisture.  150 years later the only surviving copies, greatly damaged, were gathered and edited by Tyrannion who wrote the missing paragraphs himself.  Desiring to publish the works, he contracted the copying work out to copyists, who were recognized even by Tyrannion to be inferior and their job.  Finally these works were given to booksellers who edited them once again producing myriad faulty editions.  All this to say one simple point.  You will, without thinking, pick up Aristotle and believe you are reading Aristotle, but you have far better reason to trust the manuscript of the Bible than you do Aristotle on those grounds.  This leads Purtil, in his book Thinking About Religion to write:

“If the biblical narratives did not contain accounts of miraculous events…biblical history would probably be regarded as much more firmly established than most of the history of say, classical Greece and Rome.”

  • Well preserved manuscripts:  “It is indeed a great relief against the inconvenience of corrupt translations, to consider that although some of them be bad enough, yet, if all the errors and mistakes that are to be found in all the rest should be added to the worst of all, every necessary, saving, fundamental truth, would be found sufficiently testified therein.”[2]  The manuscripts are remarkably well preserved, however there are some variants and inconsistencies.  What shall we say about these things?  Do the variants and the inconsistencies actually change the narrative?  In other words, if we removed those instances with variants and inconsistencies would we lose the story that God became flesh, lived as Jesus of Nazareth, died on a cross and rose again three days later?  This story stays intact.

One Persuasive Argument for the authority of the Bible

We live in an age of rationalism, which is something quite different than simply being rational.  Rationalism for the purposes of this discussion, believes that human beings come to knowledge strictly through intellectual and deductive reasoning in a closed system, that is without the aid of divine assistance.  In our time, this has manifested itself with an overdependence upon logic and what can be proven by the scientific method.  This method works quite well when we want to understand cellular biology, analytical physics, or geometry.  However, rationalism does not do us much good when we want to discuss the deeper experiences of being human.  By this we mean concepts such as justice, love, mercy, compassion, anger, the desire for purpose, the concept of the divine.  To this we must look for something beyond rationalism, because at this very point where we need something most rationalism fails to account for the deep needs of our humanity.  This of course does not prove that the Bible is the book to meet those deep needs, nevertheless the Bible acknowledges those deep needs and provides answers.  It is now up to you to see if the answers it provides are persuasive.  But in order to that, you must pick it up and read it!

If the Bible is authoritative, what does it say? 

The Bible says a lot!  And the best way to determine what it says is to jump right in and learn it for yourself.  Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the Bible and not certain how to read it.  For one, the Bible ought to be read as a whole.  One must not pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans and let that letter stand on its own.  Rather, the Romans should be placed within the larger framework of the unified story that the Bible is telling.  The essential story of the Bible is about God, his creation, its fall and subsequent redemption through act of Jesus, and final restoration.  The Bible has many different ways of expressing that story, with themes such as substitution, forgiveness, restoration, release, healing, and many others.  We will pick one theme that is demonstrated well throughout the whole Bible so that we might become familiar with reading the Bible as a unified whole.  I have chosen the theme of Ransom.  Ransom is a good theme for our purposes because it literally runs from the first book of the Bible to the very last.  Below are texts that we will read together.  See if you can piece the story together for yourself with the scripture listed below.

Salvation History (for the perspective of the theme of Ransom):

Gen 1.27

Gen 3.1-20

Gen 5.3

Gen 15

Exodus 6.6

Leviticus 25.25

Ruth ch. 3

Job 33.24

Isa 53

Psalm 22

Hos 13.14

Zech 12.10

Mark 10.45

1 Peter 1.18

Rev 5.9


[1] Spurgeon, “Confirming the Witness of Christ”  vol II pg 226

 

[2] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, Owen’s Works vol 16





Rob Sturdy: Help me read the Bible! (John Owen)

20 12 2011

Owen, unlike Calvin and Luther who we have featured in previous entries for this series, was not widely known for his exegetical work but rather for his systematic treatment of various matters of theology such as the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the atonement, sanctification, and spiritual disciplines.  And though Owen’s work is largely on these issues, rather than an exposition of the scriptures, nevertheless Owen’s love for the scriptures shines through in all of his work.  For example, consider the following passage from Owen’s most famous work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

His oblation, or “offering himself up to God for us without spot, to purge our consciences from dead works,” Heb. ix. 14; “for he loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” Rev. i. 5. “He loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it,” Eph. v. 25, 26; taking the cup of wrath at his Father’s hands due to us, and drinking it off, “but not for himself,” Dan. ix. 26: for, “for our sakes he sanctified himself,” John xvii. 19, that is, to be an offering, an oblation for sin; for “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly,” Rom. v. 6 (Owen’s Works vol X The Death of Death in the Death of Christ pg 175)

Note the  number of references to scripture in that one excerpt!  And that is only half the paragraph!  In the full paragraph Owen will cite directly or allude to scripture no less than seventeen times.  Though Owen focused his intellect mainly on doctrine, he did devote a considerable amount of time and attention to the Epistle to the Hebrews, which he wrote a massive five volume commentary consisting of more than 2500 pages in small type font.

So, having given a reasonably sufficient introduction for our purposes we now look to John Owen for some helpful tips on how to read the Bible.

  1. Read the Bible seriously:  In his introduction to the The Death of Death in the Death of Christ Owen writes “If thou intendest to go any farther, I would entreat thee to stay here a little.  If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or a title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatres, to go out aagain, thou has had thy entertainment; farewell!” (Owen’s Works vol X pg 149).  What was Owen saying?  To put it simply, Owen believed that study of divine things was a matter of serious business.  If you didn’t have the time to take it seriously, you might as well not do it at all.  Study of scripture  requires time and both mental and emotional effort.  Here we can learn a great deal from Owen towards our own devotional lives.  How seriously do we take the study of scripture?  How much time do we devote to it?  Do we wrestle with the meaning of the words?  Do our hearts wrestle with the implications therein?  Is our devotion a fifteen minute “shot in the arm” or a serious, sit down, intense effort?
  2. Approach the Bible as an inexhaustible resource:  In his introduction to his commentary on Hebrews Owen writes concering the scriptures “I found the excellency of the writing to be such; the depths of the mysteries contained in it to be so great; the compass of the truth asserted, unfolded, and explained, so extensive and diffused through the whole body of Christian religion; the usefulness of the things delivered in it so important and indispensably necessary; as that I was quickly satisfied that the wisdom, grace, and truth, treasured in this sacred storehouse, are so far from exhausted and fully drawn forth by the endeavores of any or all that are gone before us” (Owen’s Works vol 17 pg 6).  What might Owen be saying here?  After studying every resource on the Epistle to the Hebrews that he could get his hands on, he concluded that the Epistle itself remained an inexhaustible resource of wisdom, grace, and truth.  Therefore, when we approach the Bible we need to keep in mind that no matter how many times we have read a certain passage, no matter how familiar we are with its themes we will never exhaust the riches it has in store for us.  If the Bible becomes too familiar, I will suggest the problem is not with the Bible but rather with the reader, who has failed to keep Owen’s first instruction which is to read it seriously.
  3. Understand the purpose of the Scriptures:  For Owen, the sole purpose of the Scriptures was to display the glory of Christ for our joy and edification.  Therefore, when we come to the study of Scripture we should first (1) look for the glory of Christ to be displayed in every passage and (2) expect for the glory of Christ to make us glad.  First, on the looking for the glory of Christ in every passage Owen says the following: “We can see nothing of it (the glory of Christ), know nothing of it, but what is proposed unto us in the Scripture” (Owen’s works vol 1 pg 409).  This is a very important statement.  The Bible is not principally a rule book as so many make it out to be.  Nor even is it a road map to salvation.  Rather, the Scriptures are a vehicle that reveals the glory of Christ.  It is the glory of Christ, revealed in the Scriptures which draws the heart of the reader to Christ and thus to salvation.  If we read the Scriptures in such a way as to look for something other than the glory of Christ, Owen would argue we are using the Scriptures in the wrong way.  When we come to Scripture let us then always look for Christ and how his glory has been revealed.  Secondly, what effect should we expect for this to have upon our soul?  He writes “in this present beholding fo the glory of Christ, the life and power of faith are most eminently acted.  And from this exercise of faith doth love unto Christ principally, fi not solely, arise and spring.  If, therefore, we desire to have faith in its vigour or love in its power, giving race, complacency, and satisfaction unto our own souls, we are to seek for them in the diligent discharge of this duty-elsewhere they will not be found” (Owen’s Works vol I pg 291).  In other words, the principal factor in our spiritual growth in joy, faith, hope, peace, perseverance etc., rests not in anything other than beholding the glory of Christ and taking delight in it.  Which means if nothing else, reading the Bible should be a joyful experience by which something of immeasurable beauty, namely the glory of Christ, is put on display for us.

 





Rob Sturdy: Help me read my Bible! Part II: Four tips from John Calvin on study of Scripture

20 12 2011

One of the chief benefits of training for ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, England, was the Hall’s absolute commitment to intense Biblical studies. Not only did we benefit from some very fine tutors, but we also benefited from an excellent library containing the most well respected Bible commentators in the world past and present. This gave me a hunger for Biblical scholarship, one which I’ve

continued to pursue in the ordained ministry.  My office is slowly becoming filled with the commentaries from the same Bible scholars I read at Oxford and I continue to enjoy their insights. When preparing for a sermon, I pull down the relevant commentaries and stack them beginning with the most technical and gradually work my way through till I wind up with the most pastorally applicable. Of all the commentaries I read during this process, none do I look forward to more than the commentaries of the reformer from Geneva, John Calvin (who does disappoint but only on rare occasions). Many times I have found modern scholars, with all the advancements in archaeological, linguistic and sociological research, have little to add to the insights of John Calvin writing 500 years before them. And of course rarely is Calvin’s intense pastoral concern to apply Biblical truth to the souls of his congregation matched by any modern evangelical authors. So let us turn to this great man and see what gems we might mine from his extensive collection of writings to apply to our reading of the Bible.

1)  Approach the Scriptures with the Right Goal in Mind
People pick up the Bible for many reasons.  Some people read it to increase their learning, some people read it for moral guidance, some people read it for self-improvement, time tried wisdom, or simply for comfort.  While each of these is good, Calvin would want the chief end of our reading of Scripture to be about knowing God.  In the Institutes he writes that the Scriptures were given to the Church “as a surer and more direct means of discovering himself” (Institutes 1.6.1).  A few lines later he clarifies his statement by saying

“It was necessary, in passing from death unto life, that they should know God, not only as a Creator, but as a Redeemer also; and both kinds of knowledge they certainly did obtain from the Word. In point of order, however, the knowledge first given was that which made them acquainted with the God by whom the world was made and is governed. To this first knowledge was afterwards added the more intimate knowledge which alone quickens dead souls, and by which God is known not only as the Creator of the worlds and the sole author and disposer of all events, but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator” (Institutes 1.6.1)

The “first knowledge” that Calvin here refers to is that knowledge of God revealed in creation (Rom 1.20).  But that personal, intimate, saving knowledge of God where he is known as savior and mediator is only given in the Scriptures and this is their chief end and unifying theme from beginning to end.  When we approach the Scriptures, Calvin would have us consider what they have to say about God first, and more specifically what they have to say about God as redeemer.  Only after this do we move onto personal application.

2)  Pray before you open your Bible
Calvin believed that you could open up the Bible, read it, comprehend it, and yet fail to apply any of its life saving benefits to your soul.  As long as we read the Bible through human effort alone, we would undoubtedly fail to read it rightly.  Only with the aid of the Holy Spirit, authenticating the truths of the Scriptures on our hearts, will we be able to read the Bible in a spiritually edifying way.  Calvin writes:

For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted. (Institutes 1.7.4).

Before we open the Scriptures, perhaps we might pray with John Calvin: “Father, send your Holy Spirit to penetrate my heart, and seal the truths of your Word on the deepest, most hidden parts of my soul.”

3)  Make every effort to understand the Author’s intentions
It is clear from reading his commentaries that Calvin took great pains to understand the original intention of the Author. While all interpretation is “reader response” to some extent, Calvin would not have been of the mind that the reader’s opinion was important, he wanted to know what the author’s opinion was.  He employed commentaries, linguistic study guides, and histories to better comprehend the author’s language, cultural setting, and intent.  In his dedication to his commentary on 1 Corinthians he writes:

I am confident that I have secured- that it will furnish no ordinary assistance for thoroughly understanding Paul’s mind.  (Calvins Commentaries Vol 10, pg 34)

How might we apply this?  We might start by disregarding our cultural fascination with what we think and believe and seek to understand what the author thought and believed and intended to convey.  Secondly, we might see what helps are available in pursuing this goal.  Understanding the culture of the author, his background and historical setting are often a great help.  The best tool for this is a good set of commentaries.  You could buy John Calvin’s complete set for $200 here. Or a good contemporary set is the Bible Speaks Today series that can be purchased here on CD rom for $65.  For most lay people, a set of commentaries is simply far too great of a commitment (both in time and money) and thus not a realistic choice.  If this is true, then I would recommend the ESV Study Bible.  It comes as close as I think you can come to a full set of commentaries handily available in one compact volume.  Finally, a warning against one volume commentaries such as this one.  Even though the scholars involved in that particular project are complete all-stars, I have found one volume commentaries to be singularly unhelpful.  If you’re going to go the one volume route, get an ESV Study Bible.

4)  Summarize what you’ve read with brief, simple application
In the introductory remarks to his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Calvin writes:

The chief virtue of the interpreter consists in lucid brevity.  And truly, since almost his only responsibility is to lay open the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to explain, to the degree that he leads his readers away from it, he goes astray from his purpose.

I take this to mean for our present discussion, that when we read the Bible we should make a practice of  simply and succinctly summarizing what we have learned and distilling a simple application from such knowledge that could be acted upon immediately.  I make a personal habit of doing this in a journal, as well as trying to share what I am learning in my study of Scripture with Steph (my wife) or Iain (Associate Rector).

While by no means comprehensive, I believe that these are a few principles near and dear to the heart of John Calvin that he would commend to us in our study of Scripture.  I hope you’ve found this helpful!





Rob Sturdy: What makes for a good sermon?

20 12 2011

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently who asked “what makes for a good sermon?”  We covered all the usual bases.  That is, it should be scriptural, engaging, challenging, orthodox, etc.  But that is not really the question that my friend was asking.  He clarified by asking “what do you think a sermon should accomplish?”

The question is helpful because so few people ever ask it.  Recently, a fellow pastor when asked the same question answered with “I think a good sermon is when people are still talking about it on Monday morning.”  This is quite ludicrous.  After all, I could strip naked and do a rain dance on the front pew and people would still be talking about it on Monday morning.  In fact, they would probably talk about it for much longer than that.  The pastor’s response showed that even though he preaches every Sunday, he has never actually thought critically about what he is trying to accomplish from the pulpit.

Likewise, I wonder how the person in the pew evaluates sermons.  Did it make you laugh?  Were you challenged?  Did it make you feel bad?  What do you think the sermonshould accomplish.

Perhaps few people illustrate what a sermon should accomplish more clearly than John the Baptist, whose very life was a visible sermon.  He accomplished a range of things, however I would like to point you to three specific things that the Baptist was intentional about that help us understand the mechanics of a good sermon.  At a bare minimum, the preaching and teaching staff at Trinity tries to accomplish each of these things in every sermon and teaching.

A good sermon testifies about Jesus

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.   (John 1:6-8 ESV)
John was very clear about who he was and who he was not.  He “was not the light.”  John’s role is not to testify about himself or to draw attention to himself in any way.  Rather, he came to draw his hearers attention to someone else entirely.  Namely, he came to draw people’s attention to Jesus.  Whatever the text, whatever the topic, the role of the preacher is to guide the sermon towards a testimony about Jesus.
A good sermon makes us look small and makes Jesus look big
He must increase, but I must decrease
(John 3:30 ESV)
People want to hear sermons that make them look big.  Inside each of us is a desire to be sufficient, strong, courageous, disciplined, important, etc.  The root of this desire is that you and I desperately want to be the hero of our own story.  So whether we’re talking about overcoming sin, reaching the lost, or correcting some social injustice, people will always be most pleased hearing that the answer lies within themselves and its now up to them.  But of course the life of John the Baptist teaches us that we’re actually quite weak and insignificant.  We’re not the hero of the story.  Jesus is.  We must decrease.  He must increase.  A good sermon exposes all the ways that you and I are insufficient for the demands of life.  There is sin that we cannot overcome.  There are situations that we are ill equipped to manage.  We need help.  A good sermon, after making us realize we are in need of help will encourage us to run to the helper.  The good news is that help has come in the person of Jesus Christ.  He’s the hero of the story.  He is relief in time of need.  He is mercy in the time of judgment. A good sermon will “decrease” the ego of the individual and exalt the greatness of Jesus Christ.
A good sermon points to the sacrificial death of Christ for sinners
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
(John 1:29 ESV)
A few days ago  my two year son David and I were talking about the cross.  He asked why Jesus had a cross and I said that he was rescuing us.  The word “rescue” triggered something in my son’s brain and he promptly asked  ”why is Jesus a superhero?”  Indeed!  The sermon must answer this question to be complete.  After “decreasing” ourselves by exposing sin, it is not enough to claim that Jesus is the hero but we must know why he is the hero.  Here, John the Baptist pulls no punches.  Jesus is the hero because he is the sacrificial lamb whose death takes away the sin, guilt, and shame of the world.  John’s life is about calling people to “behold!”  Behold the hero who gives his life for needy sinners.
So what should the sermon accomplish?  It should testify about Jesus.  It should make us feel small and make Jesus look big.  It should p0int to Jesus’ heroics on our behalf, chiefly demonstrated by his sacrificial death on the cross.  For those of you preparing a sermon this Sunday, I challenge you to follow the example of John.  For those of you listening this Sunday, I encourage you to evaluate what you hear along these lines.




Rob Sturdy: What role do feelings, faith, works etc. play in spirituality?

20 12 2011

Many judge the quality of their spiritual life by three things.  First, people judge their spiritual life by how they feel.  Do you feel spiritual?  Do you feel the presence of God?  Second, people judge their spiritual life by the quality of their life.  Am I becoming a better person?  Am I happier?  More content?  And finally, people will judge their spiritual life by the vibrancy of their faith.  Do I believe strongly  enough?  These are helpful questions to ask and I would encourage you to ask them frequently.  But there is more to the spiritual life than these things.  To ask these questions is not a journey to understand God but a journey to understand yourself.  How do I feel?  What do I believe?  Am I becoming a better person?  You’ll quickly notice the answers to these questions have very little to do with God.  You’ll also quickly notice that if you ask these questions frequently enough, you’ll learn that there are days when you don’t feel spiritual.  You’ll recognize that there are days when you’re not a good person at all.  You’ll even have days when you wonder if there is a God at all!  What is the solution then?  We need something that is (a) outside of ourselves and (b) unchanging.  Enter Christ . Rather than asking how strong is my belief we ask “how strong is Christ’s faith?”  Rather than asking “am I a good person?” we ask “is Christ a good person?” And you’ll notice that unlike your answer to these questions, Christ’s answer doesn’t change.  In short, if we base our spiritual life on Christ rather than ourselves we’ll have something quite special, that being confidence and assurance in our relationship with God.  It is put well by Charles Spurgeon who writes:

“There is one thing which we all of us too much becloud in our preaching, though I believe we do it very unintentionally- namely, the great truth that it is not prayer, it is not faith, it is not our doings, it is not our feelings upon which we must rest, but upon Christ and on Christ alone.  We are apt to think that we are not in a right state, that we do not fell enough, instead of remembering that our business is only with Christ.  O soul, of thou couldst fix thy soul on Jesus, and neglect every thing else- if thou couldst but despise good works, and aught else, so far as they relate to salvation, and look wholly, simply on Christ, I feel that Satan would soon give up throwing thee down, he would find that it would not answer his purpose, for thou wouldst fall on Christ, and like the giant who fell upon his mother, the earth, thou wouldst rise up each time stronger than before.”

Spurgeon, “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol II pg 309





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian part IV

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I 

Access Part II

Access Part III

In my last post I noted that there are many sources from which the Christian can learn about God.  The Christian can learn about God from his pastor, from friends, from thoughtful Christian writers, and of course from the Bible.  The Bible then is but one of many sources we can go to in order to learn about God.  What then differentiates the Bible from these sources?  In the last post I cited the Apostle Peter who writes that in the Bible we have something “more sure” than anywhere else.  He goes on to say that only in the Bible do men speak “from God” (2 Pet 1.19-21).  This is essentially what distinguishes the Bible from all other sources.

What are we then to make of those other sources?  The answer of the Reformed Christian is complex, however I will try and distill my answer to three easy headings.  In short, those extra-Biblical sources which speak about God are (1) helpful, (2) flawed, (3) need to be tested against Scripture.

Helpful:

Extra-Biblical sources can be helpful in learning about God.  If one were to look to certain sources over others, historically the Reformed Church has shown a preference for the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils as particularly helpful sources of guidance in understanding the Scriptures and learning about God.  For example John Calvin writes:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all (Inst IV.IX.I).

So too, John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1652-1659) writes:

they (the fathers) loved not their lives unto death, but poured out their blood, like water, under all the pagan persecutions, which had no other design but to cast them down and separate them from the impregnable rock, this precious foundation.  In defense of (Christ) they did conflict in prayers, studies, travels, and writings against swarms of seducers by whom they were opposed.  (Owen’s Works, Vol I pg 6)

Owen goes on to show the high esteem by which he held the early church fathers by claiming to confirm his writing by their testimony, which he does by citing the fathers extensively (Over 50 references to the fathers in the first 10 pages).

The point I’m eager to make here is that the early Reformed had a very high view of tradition and its importance.  They didn’t see themselves in discontinuity with historical Christianity, but in continuity with it.

Alongside tradition, the early Reformed had a high regard for the voice of the gathered church.  It was for this reason that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded for an ecumenical council in London, where the Protestant Churches of Europe could gather together to seek God’s will for the reformation of the church.  Though this large ecumenical gathering never occurred, small gatherings such as those at Dordt, Westminster, Heidelberg and many others produced a “common mind” on several important theological issues.

The modern Reformed continue to look to the early church and the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries as excellent extra-Biblical sources.  Reformed Christians at their best have recognized the helpful contributions of fiction, poetry, music, art, philosophy and science as good tools for reflecting on God and humanity as well.

Flawed:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all.  But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ.  Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity.  But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit. (Inst IV.IX.I).

The full quote from Calvin above indicates that while Calvin had a high view of the fathers and the councils, he nevertheless placed limits upon their authority.  This is fairly typical of the Reformed approach to tradition, as Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion makes clear:

Councils…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Here we are reminded that it is in Scripture alone where it is believed that words are uttered “from God.”  All other words uttered about God are subject to the words uttered from God.  The two quotes above indicate that sometimes the former fails to measure up.

The caution expressed towards councils in the above quote from the Thirty-Nine Articles accomplishes two things.  First, it forces the institution of the church to take on a posture of humility.  After all, if we are ready to admit that the great Christians of the past may have made mistakes, what will prevent us from making mistakes as well?  This is why the Reformed Christians long ago adopted the slogan Semper Reformanda or “always reforming.”  When this becomes more than a slogan, when it becomes a deeply held principle, it ideally works humility and introspection at an institutional level in the life of the church.

The second thing that the above quote accomplishes is that it works humility and introspection within the life of the individual Christian and makes us aware of our need for the larger Body of Christ.  If great theologians, gathered in prayer and study of scripture can make mistakes, then surely it is more than a possibility that I will make mistakes as well in my private Bible study!  In the awareness of my own weak grasp of scripture, and the fallibility of my mind and heart, I’m driven towards the church and its councils not away from it.  Far from “it’s just me and my Bible,” I’m driven to say me, my Bible, and the church of God!

Must be tested against Scripture

If extra-Biblical sources are helpful, and yet can be flawed, how then are we to use them?  The short answer is that all sources must be measured against the bar of Scripture.  This means that Christians must endeavor to become more familiar with the Word of God than they are with words about God.  J.C. Ryle compares the person who spends more time reading words about God than God’s words to a ship without ballast, “tossed to and fro, like a cork on the waves” (Practical Religion pg 135).  So extra-Biblical sources must be read in such a way that their claims are continually brought before Scripture.  However, I would hasten to add, that extra-Biblical sources must be approached with the charity of mind that the author, not yourself, may have something admirable to contribute to your understanding of God.

Historically, the received tradition of the Reformed have been contained in the historic creeds (Apostles, Nicean) and Ecumenical Councils as well as the confessions of the Reformation.  A nice summary list with links can be found here.

If you’re wondering what extra-Biblical sources may prove helpful to you, I humbly offer the following.  The list below is not meant to be exhaustive.   I simply wanted to give a little head start without being overwhelming.  Also, by and large I wanted the works to be accessible and devotional in nature.  As best as I can remember, I’ve endeavored to put these in chronological order, although I make no promises:

Early Church

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans:  Note that this is not a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but is actually a letter from Ignatius to the Church in Rome.  Utterly humbling.  Written on the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius has given himself over to the glory of Christ.  He instructs his church not to rescue him and rob him of the martyr’s crown.

Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word:  Perhaps one of, if not the most important work of the early church on Christology.  Not the best start for the beginner but definitely worth working up to.

Ambrose On Repentance:   A beautiful, devotional work that is both memorable and highly accessible for the lay person.   It is also relatively short!  This was personally helpful to me as I was struggling with sin after conversion.

Augustine, Confessions:  What can I say?  I’ve read, re-read, and re-read this worship inspiring work of Augustine.  One of the few works of the early church that I have memorized large portions of.

Middle and Medieval:

Anselm Why God Became Man:  At times a bit tedious for the beginner, it is nevertheless worth digging into for its novel understanding of how Christ satisfies our debt to God.

Dante Alighieri The Inferno:  Undoubtedly his most famous, this is nevertheless part one of his three part Divine Comedy.  As I read this the first time I could not help but notice it is highly Augustinian in its approach to salvation, which makes it a striking precursor of the Reformation several hundred years earlier than expected.  You must put this book on your “bucket list.”

Pearl:  The name of the author is unfortunately lost to us.  This medieval poem is highly complex, touching on issues of grief, grace, redemption, and reward.  In one memorable scene, the narrator resists the idea that God’s grace freely and equally rewards all who receive it.  All in all a tremendous read from this period.

Reformation:

Martin Luther Commentary on Galatians:  Accessible, Gospel centered, offensive, over the top, amazing!  Read, re-read, re-read.

John Calvin Institutes on the Christian Religion:  It will take monumental effort on your part to wade into this heavy, two volume theological masterpiece.  It was the number one bestselling Christian book of Reformation Europe.  I’ve been compelled to memorize large portions of this as well!

John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress:  It is embarrassing to admit that I read this for the first time only recently.  If my memory serves me correct, it is the best selling book of all time apart from the Bible.  You should pick it up and see what all the fuss is about.  I couldn’t put it down and this Citadel grad found himself fighting back tears at the end of Christiana’s journey.

Post Reformation:

John Donne The Complete English Poems:  O.k., some of the poems in this volume are XXX rated and you shouldn’t read them unless you have a bucket of cold water handy.  However, towards the end of this volume you will encounter his Divine Poems, which make my heart ache for God.  Apparently Donne underwent a conversion experience that turned his intense passion for women to an intense passion for the Triune God.

John Milton Paradise Lost:  If nothing else read it for your own good!  I re-read this in 2008 for the 400th anniversary as I’m sure you all did.  If you haven’t bought a copy, make sure you get the edition with C.S. Lewis’ preface and accompanying essays.

Modern:

G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy:  A wonderfully engaging book that admirably defends the Christian faith against the growing secularism in Europe.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Discipleship:  Though not personally my favorite Bonhoeffer book, I think it is the most easily recognized.  I cannot recommend it without a word of caution.  I’ve known many Christians who have picked this book up as a call to Discipleship, thus turning it into a tool for legalism.  Read the first chapter more closely, you’ll see that only the Lord himself can call disciples, thus discipleship is always and can never be anything more than a gracious gift from Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis The Space Trilogy:  O.k., perhaps I’m not playing fair.  I listed Bonhoeffer’s most popular book but failed to do so with Lewis.  Oh well!  I listed the Space Trilogy because I find it terribly engaging.  The second volume of Lewis’ three volume trilogy is essentially a reflection on Gen 1-3.  You will learn much about God, yourself, and the devil by reading these books.  They are highly neglected in my opinion.

I’m afraid to go further I would have to list living authors and theologians.   I’ve already broken my rule by listing theologians who were alive in the past three hundred years so I must stop now.  The point of this post ultimately is to get you in the Scriptures but also engaging with God glorifying extra-Biblical sources that I have found personally helpful.  To that end, I hope I accomplish my goal!





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian? Part III

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

Access Part II by clicking here

In the previous post I examined how an individual’s experience of the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ creates a desire in the human heart to live for the glory of God.  In this post I would like to examine a bit more closely the most common means by which this happens.

Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he appeared for the last time to the disciples.  He gave them one final note of encouragement and instruction before he ascended into Heaven.  Luke records it in his book, The Acts of the Apostles.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:8-9 ESV)

There is much that could be said regarding this little excerpt from Acts but for our present purpose I will zero in on two things.  First, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit is coming and more than that, he will “come upon you.”  Second, Jesus will no longer be physically present with the disciples as the following exchange with the disciples makes clear.

And while they (the disciples) were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)

The very simple point following from this is that Jesus is not physically present with us any longer.  There was a time when people experienced the sovereign grace of God in a very earthy, physical way.  For example when the Son of God placed his hand on a sick person, called the dead out from their grave, and spoke a word of pardon over desperate sinners.  But Jesus was “taken up from you,” and though there are notable exceptions in the unreached places of the world, by and large we should not expect to have a personal visitation from Jesus.  That is, we should not expect to have an experience of sovereign grace in the same way as those who walked the earth with Jesus did 2000 years ago.

So how then can we, who can no longer enjoy the direct benefit of Jesus’ physical presence, experience the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ?  While in college I remember reading an excellent book by Civil War historian Shelby Foote.  The book was called Shiloh and I found it to be a real page turner.  Foote had such a vivid style about him that at times I was convinced I could feel the wet, spring dew of the Tennessee countryside and smell the pungent stink of black powder spewing from the Enfield rifled muskets of the combatants.  The point I’m trying to make is that if you can’t be present at an event one of the best ways to experience the event is through a well written book.  You and I cannot see the miracles of Jesus however much we wish we could have.  You and I cannot see the savior’s eyes when he says “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Nor can we behold the man on the cross, who gave up his life with the cry “It is finished!”  But just because we can’t see these things doesn’t mean we can’t have some experience of them.  One way by which people for thousands of years have experienced the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ has been through a good book, a book so vivid that the characters and events within its pages spring to life.

In an interview with Albert Einstein first published in the Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th1929, the famed theoretical physicist had this to say of his experience reading the New Testament:

“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.  His personality pulsates in every word.  No myth is filled with such life.”

Einstein’s experience reading the New Testament is worth drawing particular attention to two features.  First, he said that reading the Gospels made him feel “the actual presence of Jesus.”  Second, he remarked that no matter how well told the story, “no myth is filled with such life.”  What are we to make of this?  What we might ask is whether or not the Bible is more than just a good story.  No matter how engrossed I was in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, never for a moment did I feel the actual presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, or any of the protagonists at Shiloh for that matter.  And yet, when I read the Bible I find that I have an experience remarkably similar to what Einstein described.  Why is this?

The night before Jesus was murdered he spoke of his “going away.”  He said that it was necessary that he go away so that something special would happen.  Here’s what he said:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7 ESV)

What does this mysterious “Helper” do?  Jesus said that the Helper would come and convict us of sin (John 16.8), of righteousness (John 16.10) and judgment (John 16.11).  Also, Jesus said that the Helper would come and lead us into all truth (John 16.13).  As a crescendo to this whole section, Jesus said that the Helper would “glorify me,” that is the Helper in a very special way brings glory to Jesus (John 16.14).  I would suggest, if you wanted to simplify the work of the Holy Spirit, you could say that everything he does can be summed up under the banner of bringing glory to Jesus.

So the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ “Helper” has a job to do.  Most jobs require tools.  The doctor uses the scalpel.  The construction worker uses the hammer.  The writer uses the pen.  The Holy Spirit in this regard is no different.  He has a job to do and he has a tool.  The Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing glory to Jesus is principally done through Scripture.  Paul says in 2 Tim 3.16 that all Scripture is “breathed out” by God.

This is why when Einstein read the Gospels it felt to him as if a living, breathing Jesus was present alongside of him.  This was nothing short of the Holy Spirit of God, playing the chords of the reader’s heart like a skilled musician gently pulls on strings to make a beautiful melody.

This not only gives us a way of thinking through why the Bible has a vitality which other books do not, but it also gives us an important clue as to how we are meant to read the Bible.  If the Holy Spirit’s principle work is to bring glory to Jesus, then this must also be the principle work of the Bible.  The concept is put well in the Jesus Storybook Biblefrom which I excerpt a long quote from their introductory chapter:

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.  The Bible certainly does have some rules in it.  They show you how life works best.  But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing.  It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy.  The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all.  They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose).  They get afraid and run away.  At times they are downright mean.

No,  the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.  The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far away country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne- everything- to rescue the one he loves.  It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life

You see, the best thing about this story is- it’s true!

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

One more thing remains to be said.  The Bible is but one of many voices that proclaim the wonderful story of “how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such voice that proclaims the Gospel story through allegory.  Your Pastor may be another voice that proclaims the Gospel story through preaching.  And of course the church, throughout the centuries has endeavored to be a voice for this wonderful story of how God “loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  What, if anything, differentiates the voice of the Bible as it proclaims the Gospel from the voice of the church, or your pastor, or C.S. Lewis?  To answer this most important question we turn to Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter who had this to say of the Bible:

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)

Lewis is helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  Your pastor may be helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  The Church has indeed throughout history been very helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  What is this that we have?  The “prophetic word,” which Peter here understands to the be the Scriptures.  He says that in the Bible men speak, but they speak as “from God,” because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In no other book, speaker, or institution is the promise to hear directly from God attached.  Thus it is in Scripture alone, or as the Reformers said Sola Scriptura, that one has the assurance that he hears from God.  And because it is in Scripture alone that we have the promise that God himself speaks “you will do well to pay attention to is as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  Thus the Reformed Christian pays attention to the Scriptures like a man lost in a mine will look for sun’s light.  Here are three quick applications in closing.

  1. The Reformed Christian loves the Scriptures as a man lost in a mine loves sun’s light.  It is after all through seeing the sun’s light that the lost man is given hope for a way out.
  2. The Reformed Christian follows Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will follow the path laid out for him by sun’s light.  It is after all through following this light that the man has a course charted for his own salvation.
  3. The Reformed Christian adheres to Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will adhere to sun’s light.  Other voices may encourage the lost man.  Other voices may seek to guide the lost man.  Those voices that encourage the man to love and follow the light he listens to.  Those voices who seek to guide him closer to the light he is grateful for.  Those voices who cause him to stray from the light he disregards.  He disregards these voices because he adheres to the light, and he judges every encouragement, suggestion, claim, and guidance by how well it too adheres to the light.

In closing, I will say that just because we have something “more helpful,” does not discount other things from being helpful.  It simply means that whatever help you do find, you will find nothing as helpful as the Bible for it is the only place where we are spoken to as if “from God.”  In my next post, I would like to identify some helps and spell out exactly how they are helpful.  Topics I will address in the next post will be the Church in general, the role of tradition, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.