Monday, December 30, 2013

Reading the Bible Through in One Year -- or Two

Many Christians make a commitment to read the Bible through in a year.  My church has encouraged members to do that, and it is a laudable goal.  For various options for doing so, see Justin Taylor's post here (Hat Tip:  Denny Burk, who offers an plan that he developed, via The Aquila Report here)

I just finished reading through the Bible from front to back on a two year plan and have started anew in Genesis.  The idea for two years occurred to me when I downloaded a free version of the ESV on to my Kindle and realized that I would read the Bible completely in less than two years by doing 1% per week.  Being a bit of a numbers geek, that appealed to me. I then did so by reading one or two chapters per day (depending on the length), and then finishing out my percentage for each week on Sunday. 

That has worked for me.  For years, I struggled with one year plans:  miss a few days, and one can start feeling like he is so far behind that it becomes de-motivating. More postively, reading the smaller amounts daily in order to finish in two years allows more time for closer reflection on the text. While this may not be the right plan for everyone, it has made me a more consistent Bible reader than at any point previously in my life.

By the way, Amazon recently updated my version of the ESV, and the numbering system and large number of footnotes no longer support my 1% per year plan.  To compensate, I am now using a physical copy of the Bible to scope out my plan, and then I do my actual reading on my Kindle. Thus, my hard copy Bible has just under 1600 pages of Bible text, which means that by reading 16 pages/week, I will have read the Bible in less than two years -- one or two chapters per day, finishing each percent on Sunday.

Finally, I would note that some people would struggle reading consecutively through the entire Old Testament like that.  If so, you will need to find a plan that moves back and forth between the Old and New Testament.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rightly Dieting (?) but Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth

Christian ministers who rightly hold to a robust, historical understanding of the divine inspiration of Scripture sometimes fail to recognize the solemn and awesome responsibilities that should accompany such a commitment.  To hold to the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible is to claim that the Word of God constitutes the words of God.  If we acknowledge that the Ninth Commandment requires of us that we not misconstrue the words of our fellow man, how much more ought we to take care not to treat flippantly or make false claims about the words of God, Himself.  In addition, if we regard the Bible as God's gift to His covenant people, by which He reveals Himself to mankind, we should take seriously and humbly the need to communicate it accurately, whether in the pulpit or in other contexts, so as not to misrepresent God's Word.  I would add that while ministers are correctly teaching Bible content, they should also model proper methods of biblical interpretation, thus equipping their hearers both to read the Bible and to evaluate the preaching of others, lest they be led astray.

All of this came to mind when today's mail arrived with an advertisement from a Christian bookstore featuring prominently a new book by Saddleback Community Church pastor Rick Warren entitled, The Daniel Plan.  Noticing that one of the medical doctor co-authors had the first name of Daniel, I briefly hoped against hope that this doctor had given the diet his name. Alas, it was not to be.  According to the product's website, which also features, in addition to the book, a DVD, study guide, cookbook, and journal, "The Daniel Plan is not just another 'diet.'  It's a healthy lifestyle based on the Old Testament story of Daniel."  Given that no one can really read the story in Daniel chapter 1 and construe it as some sort of tale of either diets or healthy lifestyles, it is easy to reach the conclusion that the Word of God has been reduced to a mere marketing tool designed to hawk this set of products. 

Certainly, there are a range of interpretations of the significance of the first chapter of Daniel.  Readers will recall that youthful Daniel and his young friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), were forcibly exiled from Jerusalem and assigned to the court of Nebuchadnezzar.  As part of their training in the court, they were to receive an allotment of food. Daniel, in behalf of himself and his friends, argued that they would be defiled by this food and ultimately prevailed upon the administrator to allow them to eat vegetables and drink water instead. 

In discussing the reasons for Daniel's refusal to accept the king's food, E.J. Young, in his classic commentary on Daniel, provides the most common interpretation by favorably quoting from Keil:  "The partaking of the food brought to them from the king's table was to them contaminating, because forbidden by law... [because] the heathen at their feasts offered up in sacrifice to their gods a part of the food and the drink, and thus consecrated their meals by a religious rite; whereby he who participated in such a meal participated in the worship of idols...." While acknowledging the possibility of that view, Sinclair Ferguson argues that Daniel saw "an effort to seduce him into the lifestyle of a Babylonian through the enjoyment of pleasures he had never before known....The good life that Daniel was offered was intended by the king to wean him away from the hard life to which God had called him."

While I prefer Young's reading of the passage, I would note that both of these views emphasize what seems clear from the text:  that Daniel's courageous decision regarding the food rested on a question of loyalty to his covenant God while living in a strange land. Yet, Rev. Warren somehow finds a different understanding:  "But Daniel knew this wouldn't be a healthy diet, so he asked that he and three of his friends be allowed to eat healthier.... [H]e understood God wanted him to live a healthy lifestyle so he could serve God no matter where he was located.

Warren's reading of the passage is so laughable that it hardly needs rebuttal.  Not only are we left to ask on what basis Daniel might have found the nutritional data to suggest that his own diet would be more nutritious than the king's "defiling" (a rather strong word, if it merely means "less nutritious") food, but the notion of a "healthy lifestyle" is a modern concept that likely would not have occurred to a late 7th century B.C. Middle Eastern youth whose homeland of late was being subjected to savage military attack and siege.  Given the paucity of support for reading this as a story about losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle, one is left with a couple of unsettling possibilities. Either Rev. Warren, who holds a degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is an ordained Baptist minister of long standing, is so ignorant of biblical interpretation as to arrive at this bizarre conclusion or, even worse, he knows better but is pushing this because giving a biblical facade to such a product makes for good marketing.

Either way, this is an abuse of the Word of God, and those who care for His Word need to point it out.  Rick Warren, while liked more by some groups of Christians than others, is hardly way out there on the spectrum of modern American evangelicalism.  He is successful and mainstream.  To abuse the Word of God in this way in the marketing of a line of products is offensive, even vulgar, and Christians who know better need to shout, "Stop."

Finally, while the name of the program itself is the most blatant abuse of sacred scripture found in the marketing materials, looking through the website reveals additional carelessness with the Bible. The most ironic -- amusing in a sense -- is the use of Philippians 4:13:  "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  Commenting on that verse, the website contends, "God is the power and the energy behind all transformational change and that includes making the lifestyle choices necessary for you to become healthy."

Perhaps Rev. Warren should re-read that letter, which was written from prison.  St. Paul, the prisoner, said that he had contentment whether in plenty or want.  Whether overwhelmed or starving, he had the strength in Christ to be content.  Sitting in prison, his "lifestyle choices" were somewhat limited

Thus, those spiritually invigorating words are not the stuff of a diet plan.  If Rev. Warren wishes to use his position and his pulpit to hawk a diet (pardon me, lifestyle) plan as his latest thing for people to spend 40 days on, I might shake my head and wonder if that falls within the proper mission of the church, but so be it.  However, I wish he would cease to abuse the Word of God while doing so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The First Hypothetical: my response, his rebuttal, my rejoinder

The purpose of this post is to continue the debate and discussion of the marks of the church with my friend, LC, who is the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle. For those readers who may be just joining, LC writes from the vantage point of an American evangelical Anglican.  I am a former Baptist minister who has been licensed to preach by my presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America.  We both represent the Reformed strand within our respective traditions. 

We began this discussion with an intent to focus on the subject of church discipline, and we are steadily making progress toward engaging in that discussion, but in laying foundation we have found significant disagreements in the area of the sacraments, and we have spent considerable time exploring those differences.  It is the point of this post to respond to his latest points. 

While I was glad, though not surprised, that LC distanced himself from positions commonly referred to as New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision, it was disappointing that he quoted favorably at length (perhaps unintentionally) from a leading proponent of the federal vision ideology, D. Wilson.  Wilson's more serious deviations from reformed orthodoxy -- denial of a pre-fall covenant of works, advocacy of a conditional election, redefining faith as faithfulness, and so forth -- would seem to place his positions on paedocommunion as mere symptoms of deeper problems, and Wilson would not be the best ally for that reason. The Wilson quote, and the quotation of the other blogger agreeing with him, offer caricatures of how the reformed set out to nurture their children.  Given Wilson's repudiation of much else in the Westminster standards, it is not surprising that he would set out to undermine those who use those standards for their understanding of how those standards apply to covenant children.

Leaving that aside, LC points out that our differences on the sacraments are significant.  While there is a sense in which I agree with that, I also would suggest that it is possible to overstate our differences.  Throughout Protestant history, there has been a struggle to set forth a view of the sacraments that will not be misunderstood by those outside of our particular school of thought.  All Protestants would agree, against Rome, that there should not be a confusion between the sign and the thing signified.  Because Protestants believe that Rome was guilty of precisely such confusion, this is a distinguishing characteristic of the Reformation churches. Though this point was not expressed as one of the 5 "solas" that we commonly speak of, it is implicit in the notion of sola fide.  At the opposite extreme from Rome, while still within the realm of Protestant orthodoxy, was Zwingli. Whereas Rome saw the sacraments as mechanically operative, Zwingli's followers rejected even the term "sacraments," calling them instead ordinances and thinking of them primarily in terms of our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than as a means of grace that God offers for us. Having been raised a Baptist and, thus, in the system of Zwingli, I can remember a time when I thought that any talk of sacraments hinted at sacerdotalism.  Obviously, that is no longer my view. 

Yet, it is not only the Zwinglians that struggle to understand the positions of other Protestants.  Of course, Lutherans deny that they espouse an ex opere understanding of the sacraments, but when the reformed look at Lutheran statements regarding the sacraments, we often find ourselves scratching our heads and asking how that differs from Rome.  On the other hand, when Lutherans look at reformed statements on the sacraments, they somehow think that they are reading Zwingli, no matter how many times the reformed speak of the sacraments as God's means of grace by which he offers his gifts to his people -- not exactly Zwinglian lingo.  No doubt, the confusion occurs because while the sign and the thing signified should never be confused, they are nonetheless closely connected.  The sign and thing signified may not be confused, but theologians attempting to sort it out certainly can be.

In baptism, God signifies and seals the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant of grace.  The water of baptism symbolizes the regenerative cleansing of the Holy Spirit.  As I have previously noted, the Westminster Confession of Faith (28.7) emphasizes that "the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment wherein it is administered." Quoting that statement, Michael Horton adds, "Baptism itself does not effect this in an ex opere operato fashion, but achieves its perlocutionary effect when and where the Spirit chooses."

Getting back to the subject of the proper recipients of the Lord's Supper, I would simply point out that the New Testament places on recipients a responsibility of repentance and faith for worthy recipients, and this is language that is not suggested with regard to the recipients of household baptisms. That baptism and the Supper are means of grace is not in dispute, but one must also consider the different functions that these perform as covenant signs and seals.  Whereas baptism signifies inclusion in the covenant community and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the Supper, again quoting Horton, " strengthens and confirms that faith that we have professed.  In Paul's teaching, admission to the Supper requires discernment, so as not to eat and drink unworthily."

LC concedes that paedocommunion is a recent development in Anglicanism, and I would urge him to explore further the idea that this has has been a component of latitudinarian trends in his own denomination's theology.  As he has noted previously, the 39 Articles predated Westminster, and Anglicans were active participants in the Westminster Assembly. Though the Westminster Confession was created as a consensus document, there can be no debate that paedocommunion was not consistent with it.

I do think that the differences over baptism are more significant and important for our understanding of church discipline.  To the extent that Anglicans conjoin baptism and regeneration -- the sign and the thing signified -- differences will emerge down the line regarding nurture -- and discipline.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Response to the First Hypothetical regarding Marks of the Church

This post continues the debate between myself and the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle (henceforth, LC) regarding the marks of the church.  As a reminder to those reading, LC is an Anglican who is self-consciously in the historically reformed tradition of that communion.  I am a Presbyterian who is also writing from the perspective of the historically reformed.  While we initially set out to discuss the issue of church discipline, we have spent most of our bandwidth thus far in dialogue regarding the sacraments.  This has been helpful, as we have identified areas of agreement while also discovering differences that will be helpful in elaborating on our differing perspectives on the matter of church discipline when we finally reach that destination.  I have enjoyed and benefited from interacting with LC on this, and I would encourage readers to scroll through our posts, as I believe that this represents thoughtful theological discussion could be helpful to others.

In the beginning of his latest post, LC presented some responses to my most recent points, and I think that he aptly summarizes some areas of agreement and difference.  As our conversation is moving to a new phase, I won't offer further response other than on one point. I had previously stated that he had underestimated the value that Presbyterians see in the Lord's Supper, and he graciously conceded the point while also pointing out that the Supper has a more central place in Anglican liturgy. I want to concede back a bit of what he has conceded to me. In our confessional documents, I would continue to stand by my contention that Presbyterians sufficiently value the Lord's Supper. However, I should also admit that commitment to a more formal and uniform liturgy helps conservative Anglicans to withstand the influences of broader American evangelicalism to which conservative Presbyterians have been perhaps too susceptible. Given that evangelicals frequently are not quite sure what to do with the sacraments, and especially the Lord's Supper, toward which evangelicals typically hold to Zwingli's views, this has had a detrimental impact on Presbyterian worship in many quarters.  While I am deviating a bit from the goal of interacting with LC on these issues, I wanted to use this opportunity to urge any Presbyterian and broader evangelical readers to think deeply about the significance and place of the Supper in our worship.  While I would not restructure our services after the Anglican format, I would prefer that we be more influenced by the Anglican example and less by the trite and ahistorical patterns of modern evangelicalism.

Returning to the subject at hand, LC sets up a hypothetical example of a child of parents in the church.  In interacting with his discussion, I find some points of agreement and difference in belief and practice:

There is much about the baptism of covenant children that we share in common.  By baptism, covenant children of one or both believing parents are welcomed into the covenant community.  The parents of the child take vows acknowledging their child's need for the saving blood of Christ and renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, claiming the covenant promises in the child's behalf, and promise, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit, to set a godly example and bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The congregation vows to assist the parents.  However, as we have already discussed, there is a significant theological difference with regard to what happens at baptism.  Whereas, the Anglican view seems to be that elect children are regenerated at baptism, Presbyterians don't hold that normally to be the case.  Certainly, baptism bears symbolic testimony to both the cleansing blood of Christ and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit while also functioning as a means of grace and as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace to believers and their households.  However, we take care not to confuse the sign with the thing signified, and while it is good that Anglicans don't make the same error as the Roman church in claiming an ex opere relationship between baptism and regeneration, nonetheless, we would argue that they go too far in claiming that baptism is the means the Spirit uses in regeneration.

A baptized child is a member of the covenant community and, as such, is entitled to all of the privileges granted to communicant members of the church, with two exceptions:  the child cannot receive the sacrament of communion, and the child cannot vote on church matters.  There is no particular age at which a child is permitted to become a communicant member -- that is left to the discretion of the elders to determine whether a child understands the Gospel and is able to make a credible profession of faith in Christ.  We do acknowledge that children raised in the covenant community may never recall a day when they did not believe in Christ.  With regard to the instruction of covenant children, we are seeing some healthy trends among conservative Presbyterians.  For a long period of time, partly due to the overall liberalizing of the church, the catechizing of children has fallen into disuse -- that is not to say that it had disappeared, but fewer churches were using this kind of instruction.  In recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on the use of catechisms, particularly the Westminster Shorter Catechis.  There is also a simpler catechism appropriate for younger children that is commonly used. This is a healthy trend.  The catechizing, if provided, may occur at any point through childhood. 

Typically, a child who is now professing faith in Christ will meet with one or more elders for appropriate counselling and explanation regarding that profession.  A child may also attend membership classes similar to those provided for adults.  A child who has professed faith in Christ and completed the instruction required by the church will be presented to the church and take his membership vows.  Often this is done on a communion Sunday, with the result that the new communicant member will participate in his first communion.

As indicated, non-communicant children do not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper -- please note that I did not say that they don't participate, as being present is a form of participation, and the child observes the proclamation of the gospel provided in the sacramental meal. I was surprised to learn that Anglicans allow children who have not been confirmed to partake. LC indicates that this is a development of the last 40 years and may be tied to the liberalization of the church.  I would be interested to know if there is push back on this from conservative, reformed Anglicans. 

While paedocommunion makes a bit more sense in light of the Anglican view of baptismal regeneration, I would suggest that it is not a necessary inference of baptismal regeneration.  This issue has in recent years become controversial in Presbyterian circles, as it is clearly outside the Westminster standards and, I would argue, not consistent with biblical injunctions that, for example, recipients of the Supper examine themselves and remember the Lord's death.  Certainly, the Lord's Supper is a means of grace, but it is an instrument of sanctification for those who have been regenerated.  Not believing that regeneration occurs with baptism, we do not find it to be appropriate for children. I mentioned that this has become controversial in Presbyterian circles, and those who have tried to push for paedocommunion among us have frequently been tied to the "federal vision" movement that also affirms a conditional baptismal regeneration while also redefining justification to deny that it is a once and for all forensic declaration and making it conditional on our covenant faithfulness, rather than being based on faith alone. N.T. Wright has had a significant influence on those adherents.

I suspect that LC will distance himself from those latter views, but I would be interested in further information about the history of paedocommunion among Anglicans. I had been of the impression that it is rather unique to the Eastern Orthodox church and not practiced by any of the major western churches.

It is interesting that there are so many layers of both agreement and disagreement regarding our hypothetical covenant child. I will look forward to LC's next post.