Monthly Archives: January 2017

Overcoming the Knights Who Say, “Ni!”

I’m forever indebted to Dr. S. Donald Fortson, Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). I’ve never met him, but a few weeks ago I was listening to one of his lectures available on iTunes U. It was from Dr. Fortson’s History of Christianity I course, the lecture titled “Christian Historiography.”

Toward the end of that lecture, he noted that a recognition of a canon is a call to study church history, and that the identification of the books of the canon belong to Christian history.  He said one way to understand church history is that it’s a history of the exegesis of the New Testament.  He also credited Philip Schaff with saying:  “Church history is the connecting link between exegetical and systematic theology.”

Dr. Fortson then went on to illustrate Schaff’s comment as follows. Picture that connection between exegetical and systematic theology via the image of a tree, a grand oak tree.  The roots are biblical exegesis.  The foundation must be deep roots that sink deep down into the Scriptures.  The great branches of the tree would be systematic theology.  The great trunk of the tree would be church history.

His key observation was what should happen between exegetical study and systematic theology. One shouldn’t jump immediately from the roots to the branches, so to speak. Rather, the humble interpreter of Scripture will pause to ask, “How have God’s people understood the Bible and where have they come to in understanding the different doctrines of the faith?”

I love that picture of the interconnectedness of the tasks of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history.  All three of them are vitally important which is why a large portion of the curriculum at RTS is devoted to all three areas.

And here is where I am indebted to Dr. Fortson. After reflecting a few moments on his illustration I came to the conclusion that when I graduated from seminary, I was a shrubbery, because my theological education made that jump from exegetical study to systematic theology far too often. I even remember one professor saying that as long as we did our exegesis, our systematic theology would take care of itself. That’s certainly true, if the goal is to produce a bunch of shrubbery!!!

To be fair, the seminary I attended did require courses in church history. However, those courses were selective in what was studied. For example, although the library may have had a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, we never considered anything Calvin had to say at all!  Now I’m sorry, but no one should be able to receive a Master of Divinity without having some significant exposure and interaction with John Calvin’s writings, whether one agrees with him or not, because Calvin is one of the greatest theologians in Christian history (here are 9 other reasons Ligon Duncan gave to to read the Institutes as well). The only reason to avoid such significant individuals in the hall of faith is if there is a fear that someone may grow a trunk, that is, become convinced of what many in the church have believed for some time, and agree with those who have gone before us!

When I left seminary, I thought I had my theology down pat. So I was surprised not too many years after graduation when I found myself in a PCA church where the elders and laymen knew many theological terms and concepts I had never heard of, such as the regulative principle of worship. I was amazed by the grasp they had on many things just from their familiarity with church history, as they stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before us. Being a shrubbery, I had a lot of catching up to do. And I still do.

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Unfortunately, there are many  today who, like the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, still demand a shrubbery!  But rather than always appeasing such relentless demands, we must eventually  come to terms with the interpretations of our church fathers. After all, we aren’t the first generation ever to have the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. And this is an area where too many in the church today are conformed to the culture, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their minds.

Anthony Selvaggio’s little book, 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind, includes a chapter on neophilia, the love of the new. As Selvaggio points out, in the biblical worldview, preservation trumps progress. Using Proverbs 22:28, Salvaggio shows that there are two types of people in the world: “stone movers” and “stone preservers.” Christians are called to be “stone preservers”, that is, stewards of a sacred trust to preserve the truth delivered once for all. He quoted G. K. Chesterton with regard to the idea of the “democracy of the dead”:

“Tradition means given voices to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Chesterton, Collected Works, 1:251, cited by Selvaggio, p. 50)

For those interested in giving heed to the voices of those who have gone before us, the Reformed Forum has prepared a Reformed reading list, covering seven areas, each having three levels: biblical studies and hermeneutics; biblical theology; systematic theology; apologetics and philosophy; church history and historical theology; practical theology; and classics. This list is not for the faint of heart, but who ever said growing a trunk would be easy?

As always, take up and read!

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 14: Epilogue and Closing Exhortations

[This is the 14th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 14: That you may seek holiness and righteousness, only by believing in Christ, and walking in him by faith, according to the former directions, take encouragement from the great advantages of this way, and the excellent properties of it.”

This final direction serves as an epilogue or conclusion to the preceding thirteen directives, with five closing motives for employing everything taught therein. Before sharing those weighty motives, Marshall exhorted his readers to remember the way of sanctification laid out in directives 1-13, namely via:

“union and fellowship with Christ, and by faith in Christ, as discovered in the gospel; not by the law, or in a natural condition, or by thinking to get it before we come to Christ, to procure Christ by it, which is striving against the stream: but that we must first apply Christ and his salvation to ourselves, for our comfort, and that by confident faith; and then walk by that faith, according to the new man, in Christ, and not as in a natural condition; and use all means of holiness rightly for this end.”

The five desirable properties or motives for following the preceding 13 directives which Marshall provided were:

  • This way tends to the abasement of the flesh, and exaltation of God only, in his grace and power through Christ.
  • This way consists well with other doctrines of the gospel, which contrary errors do not (doctrines such as original sin, predestination, justification and reconciliation by faith, union with Christ, and perseverance of the saints).
  • This way is the never-failing, effectually powerful, alone sufficient, and sure way to attain to true holiness.
  • This way is a most pleasant way to those who are in it (Prov. 3:17) in several respects.
  • This is a high exalted way, above all others, for these are the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that God has set us in (Eph. 2:5-6).

When developing the fourth property, above, Marshall made five points, the third being it is a way of peace, wherein he cited Prov. 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (ESV) And then he made this observation:

“The doubts of salvation that people meet with arise from putting some condition of works between Christ and themselves; as hath appeared in this discourse. But our walking in this way, is by faith, which rejects such fears and doubtings (John 14:1; Mark 5:36; Heb. 10:19, 22). It is free from fears of Satan, or any evil (Rom. 8:31, 32); and free from slavish fears of perishing by our sins (1 John 2:1, 2; Phil. 4:6, 7); faith laying hold on infinite grace, mercy, and power to secure us; the Lord is the keeper and shade on the right hand (Ps. 121:5). Free and powerful grace answers all objections.”

May the Lord grant grace for us to take these truths to heart and walk by faith accordingly!

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The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – Direction 13: The Importance and Scope of the Means of Holiness

[This is the 13th of a 14 part highlight of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.]

“Direction 13: Endeavor diligently to make the right use of all means appointed in the word of God, for the obtaining and practicing holiness online in this way of believing in Christ, and walking in him, according to your new state by faith.”

When introducing this thirteenth directive, Marshall conceded that it could have been included as another point under the previous one, but for two considerations: the weight and comprehensiveness he wished to emphasize here. As for “weight”, he wants the reader to note that “the use of any means appointed in the word for attaining and promoting holiness, is not hereby made void, but rather established.” While faith in Christ alone is sufficient to receive Christ and all that is involved in salvation (justification, sanctification, and eternal salvation), he also asserted that several means appointed by God for the increase of faith are to be used diligently. True believers find that they need such helps, and those who refuse them reject God’s counsel against themselves.

As for “comprehensiveness”, in this directive Marshall identified ten particular means of holiness, appointed in the word of God to be used as described in this directive:

  1. Endeavoring diligently to know the word of God
  2. Examining one’s state and ways according to the word
  3. Meditation on the word of God
  4. The sacrament of baptism, made use of according to its nature and institution
  5. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a spiritual feast to nourish faith
  6. Prayer
  7. Singing of psalms, i.e., songs of any sacred subject
  8. Fasting
  9. Vows (not keen on them, admonishing that no one should think to bring himself to any good through them)
  10. Fellowship and communion with the saints

The word of God is preeminent in this list (first three). When introducing the first means, Marshall had this to say about the importance of the word of God:

“Other means of salvation are necessary to the more abundant well-being of our faith, and of our new state in Christ; but this is absolutely necessary to the very being thereof: because faith cometh by hearing the word of God, and receiveth Christ as manifested by the word; as I have before proved.”

In light of Marshall’s biblically-grounded counsel here for growth in holiness, we can begin to discover a root cause for the hole in our holiness (to borrow a phrase from Kevin DeYoung). A 2012 Lifeway Survey of 2,900 Protestant church-goers found that only 19% read the Bible daily. With that being the case, of those who read the Bible daily, how many may safely assume were employing the second and third means which Marshall identified, namely self-examination and meditation upon the Bible’s  teachings?

We only get to know someone by spending time with them, and it is through the Scriptures that we behold the face of God (1 Cor. 13: 12).  To the extent we neglect the word of God, we forfeit the appropriation of the most needful knowledge that exists.  Marshall’s identification of the two kinds of “most effectual” knowledge in this regard seems to echo  the opening of Calvin’s Institutes:

“The most effectual knowledge for your salvation, is, to understand these two points; the desperate sinfulness and misery of your own natural condition, and the alone sufficiency of the grace of God in Christ for your salvation; that you may be abased as to the flesh, and exalted in Christ alone.”

These two lessons come from the word of God exclusively, hence the necessity to take up and read!   Make a renewed commitment to read through the Bible this year, and take others along with you.

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