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Learning to Ask the Right Questions...
May 16, 2002
Greetings in our Messiah. We are trusting in your love and patience as we stumble along in this series, trying to explain our concerns. Some may be wondering, “Why are you so concerned about the Reformed?” Well, we are concerned about the whole Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we Reformed have been providentially entrusted with unique responsibilities.
LEARNING TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS:
A SPECIAL EDITION OF MESSIAH’S UPDATE
PART OF THE ONGOING DIALOGUE WITH OUR REFORMED BRETHREN WHO HAVE ABSTRACTIONIST PROPENSITIES
(BLESS THEIR HEARTS)
Greetings in our Messiah. We are trusting in your love and patience as we stumble along in this series, trying to explain our concerns. Some may be wondering, “Why are you so concerned about the Reformed?” Well, we are concerned about the whole Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we Reformed have been providentially entrusted with unique responsibilities. To whom much has been given, much is required. If the following sentence is read with the right breath of humility, and a heart full of gratitude, it will be read correctly, for Warfield had it right: the Reformed faith is Christianity come into its own. It is the finest expression of the living faith of Scripture. God has seen fit to entrust to the Reformed churches the fairest Standards, profound scholarship, abundant talent, selfless souls, and keen covenantal instincts.
But we’ve also got our share of problems. Even the best instincts need to be honed. And that we need to scale back our weaknesses and build up our strengths—well, that’s simply behaving in a mature fashion. After all, it’s been a lot of years since our last championship season. And if we keep repeating our errors such a season won’t return. My brothers, this should not be. We were used by God to rouse and rock Europe. Now we’ve been rocked to sleep, content to rehearse Christ’s claims among ourselves rather than press them everywhere. We built a Calvinist nation, the envy of the earth (see McFetridge’s Calvinism In History). Now we build enclaves—and subdivide. We spoke to the world and were heard. Now we shout at each other, and whimper at the world.
This can change. We can recover our strength, the sap can once again flow. But it will not if we are unwilling to rethink our thinking. Two attitudes are hostile to the Reformed spirit: one is revolution, the other is “But we’ve always done it this way.” Brothers, just a little willingness to examine ourselves in the light of Scripture—text and texture—can go a long way.
Our original Reformed glory was evidenced in our willingness to have God tell us, from His Word, what was what. Just think of Belgic VII! “Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house.”
The world has yet to hear a more manly confession than this of confidence in God’s Word. However, we have never been completely immune to the temptation to interpose secondary authorities between ourselves and God’s Word. Berkhof speaks frankly of it: “During the period following the Reformation, it became evident that Protestants had not altogether purged out the old leaven. Theoretically, they retained the sound principle: Scriptura Scripturae interpres. But while they refused to subject their exegesis to the domination of tradition and of the doctrine of the Church as formulated by councils and popes, they were in danger of leading it into bondage to the Confessional Standards of the Church” (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, p.28; emphasis in the original).
Ouch! Painful but true. And remember, this is Berkhof talking. Reformed Confessions as new Canon Law became a stumbling-block eager to trip us up from the beginning. We should not be surprised, then, that some Reformed spokesmen today are glibly comfortable using our Symbols as a substitute for, rather than a summary of, Scripture’s teaching. You know you are slipping into this dangerous territory when you find yourself unable to use the language of the Bible with ease, when its words become “itchy,” like a too-starched collar, and you pull them away from your neck to give you more breathing room.
We need not only to recover our humility before what God says in His Word; we need to be humble about what He does not say. We should become practiced at the art, or at least unashamed, of saying “I don’t know.” We ought not to be content to say less than Scripture reveals, but we need not feel compelled to confess more. Our Hellenic, scholastic tendencies have made us try to pull the camera too far back, or push it in too close. There’s no harm in moving the camera around—that’s what preaching is about!—but when the camera is turned utterly away from the Scripture story, you need to be especially concerned that your scene selection remains somehow connected to the script.
Consider the lesson-laden supralapsarian/infralapsarian controversy which occupied the attention of the Reformed on and off for four hundred years. Supralapsarians place God’s decree to predestinate some to life, above (supra) His decree to permit the Fall (lapsus). Infralapsarians insist God first decreed the Fall, and then decreed to elect some from the fallen mass. Trying to lay out with specificity the logical order of the decree(s) in the mind of God before Creation was not only futile, it was effrontery. The spirit of the Schoolmen who allegedly contended about the space occupied by angels on pinheads lived on in this dispute. Many thought this nonsense was important—a few still do! For my money, Bavinck ended the multi-century gabfest, pointing out several respective weaknesses, and concluding that “Both are one-sided…God’s decree should not be exclusively described…as a straight line to indicate a relationship merely of before or after…” (The Doctrine of God, p. 383). Herman was too kind.
WHAT WAS IT YOU WANTED?
Theologians were asking the wrong questions. Can you imagine that! Though differences were for the most part tolerated, a few didn’t hesitate to up the rhetorical ante, pretending God’s glory was at stake. Bah! It was all homage to abstract, dead-end speculation—and ego. The entire exchange was nothing more than a military training exercise in which the only prisoners taken were men of the same uniform and oath, but who had donned different colored armbands.
In a sense, Reformed progress today requires that we learn a lesson from the lapsarian logomachy. Hellenists had grabbed the theological camera and kept backing it up, disregarding the limitations of the lens’s field-of-view. In the matter of faith and obedience—and other items being treated in our series—we are confronting a similar, though inverted error: The camera has been moved in too closely. Material not clearly revealed is being supplied and imposed because we imagine our system cannot live without it. But that’s a groundless fear. Our system is the Word of God, as received. The Scripture cannot be broken. The Scripture cannot be chained. And the Scripture cannot be exhaustively systematized by man.
It is the Greek mind which finds this last clause so offensive, not the covenant (Hebraic) mind. We have made problems for ourselves because we want the Bible to behave and to be submissive to our categorical demands. Example: Historian Jaroslav Pelikan has observed, “The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man bear marks of de-Judaization. In Judaism [that is, among the covenant people of old] it was possible simultaneously to ascribe change of purpose to God and to declare that God did not change, without resolving the paradox; for the immutability of God was seen as the trustworthiness of his covenantal relation to his people in the concrete history of his judgment and mercy, rather than as a primarily ontological category. But in the development of the Christian doctrine of God, immutability assumed the status of an axiomatic presupposition for the discussion of other doctrines.” [Thanks, Wes White, for this & the Berkhof quote.]
When Scriptural language is ignored or abandoned for the sake of system, a new master is being served. Aristotle trumps Moses. But it is not only Moses whose voice is muted by the Hellenic lust for system. No Biblical author or speaker is spared the indignity of having his words shorn of their import and power, so long as the system is served! This despite that fact that our Reformed “system” was predicated upon our allegiance to the adequacy of God’s Words for faith and life. The Reformed faith was not born out of an “I know everything” conviction, but out of an “I know whom I have believed, and I know where He has spoken” conviction.
You would think confessionally bound Reformed people would find all this to be second-nature stuff. After all, we confess many things, essential things, which transcend our abilities to “reconcile.” We confess, for example, that God is absolutely One and, with voice not a whit softer, that He is absolutely Three. You got a problem with that? Too bad, says the Church of Christ. God says it. We believe it. That settles it. We confess that the Bible is breathed by God, 100% divine; yet we know full well it was not merely written, but authored by flesh and blood (Jewish) men. We know for a fact that Jesus was totally, not partially, God, and that He was totally, not partially, human. How can anyone hold unflinchingly to these “antinomies” yet be offended at the inseparability of faith and deeds? Ya got me.
Moreover, the entire theological enterprise begins with the problem of God’s incomprehensibility. That means we are utterly dependent on His self-disclosure for our information. It also means that, since we are not God, we cannot know the data revealed as it is known to the Revealer. But we can know truly, because we are made in His image. That’s why God’s revelation of Himself and His will comes to us by way of covenant. He’s never asked us to know everything. In fact, the covenant specifically exempts us from that very burden (Dt 29:29)! The covenant does not require that we figure everything out. It requires that we know God, what He has done, what we are to do. And it requires that we do it.
If I recall correctly, the Book of Ecclesiastes has something to say about this. After doing his level best to systematize everything, the Preacher concludes, “ It can’t be done,” and he bids us to “hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all.” Fear God—Old Testament language for believe in, have faith in, trust God—AND keep His commandments—i.e., obey.
Luther and his sons are averse to this as the “end of the matter.” As the beginning? They’ll grant it. Start with trying to keep the Law, get killed by it, then hear the Gospel and live. But such a construction tells us more about Luther than about God and His covenant with us. For K. Stendahl was exactly right when he observed that “Luther’s position on justification reflected rather more his own internal struggles than the teaching of the Pauline letters” (cited by D.A. Carson in Justification and Variegated Nomism, p.2).
Unlike Luther, Paul had no quarrel with Ecclesiastes. The Preacher speaks for every inspired author, and that not only in his exhortation of 12:13, but also in the reason given at verse 14: “For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Hendriksen phrased it radically in his (Reformed!) commentary on Matthew (at 5:19): “Salvation is not only by grace and through faith, it is also according to works” (his italics). Berkouwer tells us the faithful Bible reader cannot help but come upon this truth: “Judgment according to works is [in Scripture] declared with sharp and sustained accents, and we simply must listen with deep earnestness.” For St. Paul, too, “the relation between final judgment and works is… unmistakably intimate. There is a final divorce between obedience and disobedience.” Amen.
Writing in defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith (Faith and Justification, 1954), Berkouwer oft takes the reader to that sunny but too infrequented clime where Scriptures themselves are allowed to shine, even if they cause us problems:
“It is not to be denied that for Paul, too, the works and affairs of man play a role in the final drama of God’s judgment. God ‘will render to every man according to his works’ (Rom 2). Again, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ (Gal 6). Again, ‘each one [will] receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether it be good or bad’ (2 Cor 5). “We find the same accents in Peter…We find the same theme in the teaching of Jesus…In fact, the same alarming dispatch is spread all through the pages of divine revelation…The interdependence between the ultimate judgment and the works of the present life is plain.”
Indeed it is, if we don’t sweep it under a Hellenic carpet!
LIFE AS WE KNOW IT
Was Berkouwer teaching faith plus works for justification? That would have been news to him! No, he was rejecting abstractions, like a real Reformed man. “Sola fide does not make real life unimportant…Precisely because it is not a tenuous function of thought…faith is concrete.” That means faith works. How some see this as novel is the real wonder. The Heidelberg follows explicit Scripture in excluding workless professors from heaven: Q87: Can they, then, be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life? A87: By no means, for, as Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the kingdom of God.
Yet Berkouwer complains “it is difficult to characterize this relationship between faith and works precisely.” I’m tempted to say, “Then don’t,” but I’ll just ask: Why is this so? Surely the difficulty stems, at least in part, from our reading of Scripture as a series of propositions which can and must be catalogued. Where did this approach come from?
We are neither inclined nor qualified to provide so much as a survey of approaches to Scripture over short or long periods of history. But we do believe that the way in which Scripture is read will inform what we think we are reading. One example of this, which we’ve treated before (and plan to address again) is seen in the impact of chapter and verse markings. The temptation to believe that Paul wrote verses and not letters is irresistible to many; it has become an article of faith in the way Scripture is read and cited.
HICKORY DICKORY DOCK, PLATO RAN UP THE CLOCK
But there are yet other identifiable factors which touch and color what we ask of, and consequently what we receive from, the Bible. A man who had served as a missionary in India for decades told of a lesson taught him by a learned Hindu friend: “I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion—and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need anymore! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it.”
Of course the Bible is all this Hindu has said, and a great, great deal more. But the point is that what is drawn from the Bible is inescapably affected by its perceived character. And our perception of its character is never altogether unaffected by the character of the age/culture in which we live. Be careful! I’m not saying that culture is normative and the Bible relative. I am saying that we are impacted in our reading of the Bible by diverse cultural factors. This is indisputable. To acknowledge it is necessary, and a help if we are to recover a covenant mindset.
Lewis Mumford’s insights regarding the impact of the clock (Technics and Civilization, pp. 12-18) can further illuminate our point. Before the mechanical clock, “Eternity…serve[d] as the measure and focus of human actions,” and time was “measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it.” But with the clock, and more specifically, the division of hours into sixty minutes and of minutes into sixty seconds, “abstract time became the new medium of existence…the point of reference for both action and thought.”
Further, the clock became “not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men…Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing … Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.” In the same way, scholastic categories imposed upon the words of Scripture would come to eclipse the value of the words themselves. As time came to be experienced via the clock, so the covenant would be experienced via systematics.
Let’s pause a second (a moment? briefly?) here for the requisite disclaimer. Experience proves some are anxious to misread. Our rejection of abstract notions of faith moved a few to challenge our Reformedness. “Schlissel believes in justification by works.” Don’t ask me; I’m still trying to figure out how they connected those dots. But if that leap didn’t frighten them, what might they say when rumor has it I reject minutes and seconds? My reputation as an urbanite so diehard that concrete flows in my veins, might be in jeopardy. We can hear it now: “Schlissel says everyone must wake up by rooster!” Well, we are not Luddites. We are not cursing the benefits wrought by technics. Viva sola fide! Viva Rolex!
The self-consciousness (who we think we are) and organization (what we do) of Western man/society was retooled by the clock. It is not as though we daily think of ourselves as being so dependent upon these abstract notions of time-measurement, but we are. Just think of how your life—how everyone’s life, how the world—would change if tomorrow (not at 12 midnight, but at sunrise) we lacked the means to mechanically measure the passage of time. Wow.
The time-consciousness demanded by the clock meant dissociating time from organic sequences “and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science.” The mindset which would lead to the “scientization” of Scripture was in place: it was, er, just a matter of time. Time had a new language and a new referent which would henceforth require the former measurements to undergo translation. Never mind that the former measurements were the more “real” of the two sets. “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail” gave way to 1.2 seconds. Eventually, the Words of God would come to be translated by readers into the language of the codified systems attained at the Reformation. From thence forward, to speak as James speaks was impermissible: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” became a big no-no. System had dislodged covenant.
DON’T ASK WHY
Now let’s add another way of seeing: the disappearance from our collective Western consciousness of teleology, or purpose, as indispensable to understanding. This point is powerfully developed by Lesslie Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks (see inducement at end of this letter). The rise of modern science (and what I call scientism) involved a radical exchange of worldviews. Explanation of the world was no longer governed by purpose, but by “natural laws of cause and effect. Teleology had no place … To have discovered the cause of something is to have explained it. There is no need to invoke purpose or design as an explanation.”
The acceptance of this way of seeing—that description is adequate for explaining—has had enormous consequences. To it can be ascribed much of our modern moral morass. Public discourse excludes from consideration the purpose of man, the purpose of marriage, the purpose of the state, the purpose of sex, the purpose of life. Medical ethics increasingly confines its considerations to what can be done, not what ought to be done.
The theological enterprise was by no means immune from this scientistic spirit. Though we covered the Big Base perfectly at the Reformation—putting teleology at the very head of the Westminster Catechisms, for example—we were not sufficiently alert in succeeding generations to how this spirit could/would change the way in which Scripture would be read. Berkhof describes the post-Reformational Bible-reading atmosphere in this way: “Exegesis became the handmaid of dogmatics, and degenerated into a mere search for proof-texts. The Scriptures were studied in order to find there the truths that were embodied in the Confessions” (Principles…, p.29; emphasis his). Bull’s-eye! Forgive me if I suggest that this spirit remains very much among us.
We are not speaking, therefore, of a mere devotional versus doctrinal handling of the Word. The matter is far more basic, more profound, more far-reaching. The Word of God came to be conceived of as a manual of separate doctrinal statements which, in turn, needed to be reduced to a collection of formulas. One theologian described the new approach to the Bible in this way: “The Word of God appears as a sort of nondescript hodgepodge from which the professional theologian extracts, like a mineral out of its matrix, small but precious bits of knowledge which it is his job to clarify and systematize.” The rest of the Bible is “a sort of residuum” which has no interest.
It was in the environment of scientism that theology came to be regarded as “the Queen of the sciences.” Well, science must do its work, mustn’t it? And what had it become accustomed to doing? Bringing life in line with (abstract) minutes and seconds, etc. Substituting exhaustive description for knowledge of purpose, superimposing meaning to that which was otherwise “just there”—whether the raw materials of “nature” or the words of the Bible—that is what scientism was about. “We’ll tell you what you’re about when we get to you.” Meaning was not received by men so much as it was bestowed. Meaning awaited man’s imprimatur.
Such Hellenic scholasticism planted the pegs which would eventually anchor the systematic tent into which the Bible would be moved, and from which we are today looking for an Exodus.
The method we have been criticizing reached the level of near madness in that Lutheran tradition of making every verse of Scripture either Law or Gospel. To understand the environment of thought which birthed this mongrel, however, is to understand why Luther’s experience had to be systematized. The atmosphere demanded it.
WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?
If we can apprehend this larger picture, I think we will begin to understand why Luther’s heirs in Reformed and Presbyterian churches today not only do not, but cannot interact with those Scriptures which do not serve their system. Berkhof’s observation regarding degeneration of exegesis into a search for proof-texts, was “particularly true of Lutheran…theologians.” Well, it’s moved way beyond those borders since. More have been bitten by this systematic snake than were bitten by the fiery serpents in the wilderness.
The language of systematics is okay, as long as it is subordinated to the Word. The same is true of tradition. But like Connie Francis’s heart, systematics, under the influence of Hellenic scholasticism, had a mind of its own. For systematicians, everything vital in Scripture has already been accounted for in their system. Why speak about “lamb’s tails” when you have an atomic clock? Why sift through the residuum when the mineral has been harvested, cut and mounted? Here is the key to understanding why these brothers—and we are brothers precisely because our salvation is by grace and not by our own understanding, systematic or otherwise—here is why they cannot see the Gospel in God’s Law, why they fail to see the Law in (not just after) God’s Gospel, why faith must be quarantined from deeds, why James is a problem child, why rewards are disdained as a motive for faithful obedience (despite God’s ubiquitous employment of the same), why the truth of the conditionality of the covenant is highly feared, why the threats of being cut-off are regarded as hypothetical, etc., etc., etc.
When the Hellenic affinity for abstraction (which was already present in the Church) found itself in a society so hospitably reorganized and rehoisted upon abstractions, the reduction of the covenant to mere propositions became inevitable.
God has always been with us, so we’ve never been as bad as we otherwise might have been. But obsessing over the wrong questions has certainly kept us from being as good as we might be. With our long and by no means ignoble Reformed history, some find it easy to dismiss any suggestion that our mindset and orientation can be improved. But we are offering the suggestion anyway, and we’ll do it again. We are looking to recover that frame of mind which seeks to hear all God has to say, whether it “fits” with Greek ideas or not. To hear the Jewish Scriptures it sometimes seems even Gentiles need a Yiddeshe kup. It’s available in the Bible.
We’ve had nearly 500 years of answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?” We should have gotten the rudiments by now! We need to return to the Scripture and learn to ask the more comprehensive questions which our Father—who has saved, and is saving us—is always pleased to find upon His children’s lips: “Why have You saved me and my house? What can I do for You? What do You require? What pleases Thee?”
WHAT’S THE THEREFORE THERE FOR?
Consider Israel. I’m writing this during the Feast of Passover and just before its fulfillment, Easter. Israel was required to remember always the fact of their gracious deliverance. They were to bear uppermost in mind that their very being was a result of God’s singular grace. Deuteronomy 4 is one of the innumerable places where this is rehearsed:
For ask now concerning the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether any great thing like this has happened, or anything like it has been heard. Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live? Or did God ever try to go and take for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD Himself is God; there is none other besides Him. Out of heaven He let you hear His voice, that He might instruct you; on earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire. And because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power, driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land as an inheritance, as it is this day. Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart, that the LORD Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
Amen. Now what was the conclusion of the matter? A simple one: “You shall therefore keep His statutes and His commandments which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you.” The Reformed martyr Latimer made the identical point: “Well now it is come unto this point, that we are Christian men, Christian women. I pray you, what doth Christ require of a Christian man, or of a Christian woman? Christ requireth nothing else of a Christian man or woman, but that they will observe his rules.” (Thanks to Mr. T. Gallant for the quote.)
This is all we’ve been saying. Christ our Passover is sacrificed. We are saved! God has delivered us by the blood of the covenant. His Son has become our Savior. Why? That we may keep the Feast, with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:8).
We are not, after John and Yoko, saying “Give peace a chance.” All we are saying is that Lutheran spectacles have proven inadequate to read the whole Bible and have resulted in gross distortion of the message. A consistent Luther reading is worlds apart from the Scripture as God gave it. Zwingli, bless his heart, had it on the money when he said, “To summarize: I call everything gospel which God reveals to men and demands from men. For whenever God reveals his will to men, those who love God rejoice; and thus it is for them a sure and good message; and for their sake I call it gospel, and I prefer to call it gospel rather than law; for it is more fitting to name it after the believer than the unbeliever. This also puts an end to the dispute about law and gospel.” (Cited by Lillback, forwarded by Dr. V. Finnell.)
LUTHER IN LORD’S DAY 2
Let’s conclude by citing a sad instance of Luther’s struggle becoming Reformed Canon Law: the third question and answer of our beloved Heidelberg Catechism. For those unfamiliar with the Heidelberg—well, the first thing you must do is read it. It is the best of all the Reformed symbols. You’ll find it at our website, and many others sites. It is composed of 129 questions and answers which were later organized into 52 Lord’s Days to facilitate the annual transmission of the summary of our Christian faith. Messiah’s Congregation happily continues in this tradition.
Question and Answer 1, of course, stands as the unrivaled articulation of the Christian’s only comfort: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil,” etc. The outline of the catechism is then given in Q&A 2, where three things are said to be necessary to know (is human knowledge the real hinge?—but we’ll leave that for another day!—sms) in order to enter into the joy of this comfort: 1) the magnitude of my sin and misery, 2) how I am set free from the same, and 3) how I am to give proper thanks for such a great deliverance.
So far so good. But Q&A 3—standing without qualification—would be, and often has been, deleterious. The question reads: “How do you come to know your misery?” The answer has it: “The Law of God tells me.” What an introduction to the Law, equated from the outset with misery! Doesn’t sound much like Psalm 119, does it? “Great peace have they who love your law; I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly” (v.165,7).
Q. Why not rather say, “The Bible tells me”? A. Because Luther had a problem, and his problem made its way into the structure of our catechism. (Others have noted this intrusion.) That by itself is no big deal. The problem is the perverting pince-nez this unqualified Q&A pastes over the catechumen’s nose. In light of the confession already made in Answer #1, Q&A #3 is a regression, a proposition introduced for the sake of system regardless of God’s actual covenant.
CAN’T BUY ME LOVE
Sure, this much is true: for any sinner seeking to justify himself before God by the works of any law, apart from Christ, the Law of God spells trouble. But the catechumen has already confessed in Answer #1 that these circumstances are not his. Give us a minute on this, please, for this perspective has had dire consequences from which we still need to recover. The Law—as given by God to His people—has never been opposed to the Gospel, but rather has contained the Gospel (and vice versa). How does “The Law” begin? “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Grace! Covenant grace! Fulfilled promises, love, Fatherly care, deliverance, manumission, salvation. Here are the first words of the Law. But when it is enlisted into system, rather than read as given, it becomes the source of the knowledge of misery!
Again, we can affirm that the Law tells me of my sin and misery if—and that’s a big if—if I am looking to the Law as a Christless ladder of merit, as my neighbor indeed might be. But if I am looking at the Law as God instructs me to look at it, then I love it with all my heart. It does not spell misery to me, it spells delight, it spells life, it spells G-o-s-p-e-l; it spells J-e-s-u-s.
Beginning with an abstraction of the Law from the grace of God, Lord’s Day 2, if left without comment, would compound the damage. For in Q&A #4 it lists Jesus’ reiteration of Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 as summary indictments rather than loving guides. Zwingli’s warning was ignored: In Lord’s Day 2 we have a tragic instance of allowing the unbeliever rather than the believer to define the covenant!
Is our point about a “way of seeing” becoming clearer? We are not rejecting the Heidelberg’s teaching, even at Lord’s Day 3, but if it is left without comment it is a misleading construction, the confessional embodiment of someone’s personal problem, not the Scripture’s teaching. By leaving it without comment, though, we perpetuate a dispensational and distorted view of God’s Law, God’s covenant, and the unity of God’s Word.
God’s covenant and God’s covenant word are simply not as concerned with cataloguing, systematizing, reconciling, and harmonizing as some might wish. This is not to say that the Scriptures are unconcerned with reason, rationality or logic. Far from it! We insist (with Van Til) that God and His Word are the indispensable presupposition of all intelligible predication. At the same time, in revealing the mind of the Infinite God, we should expect that, for us, some questions must await the Consummation for resolution. The Jews have a saying: teku. It is an acronym meaning that the solution to a given problem must await the appearing of Elijah the Tishbite, that is, the Messianic Age. In the meantime we must occasionally admonish children—and ourselves—to stop asking “Why?” and accept: that’s just the way it is.
Our objective faith is relentlessly historical. And so must our subjective faith be: it is to be found not merely on our lips, but in our hands and feet. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Many early Reformers, unlike many Modern Reformers, were comfortable with such Scriptural language. Witness the Waldensian Catechism (1489): Q: What is faith? A: According to the Apostle, Heb. xi, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. / Q: How many kinds of faith are there? A: Two kinds, a living faith and a dead faith. / Q: What is living faith? A: It is faith active in love (as the Apostle testifies, Gal. v.6), that is, by keeping God's commandments. Living faith is to believe in God, that is, to love him and to keep his commandments. (The Creeds of Christendom, 1:574-5; thanks to M. Colvin)
What more can I say? Just this: The double wedding on March 23 (my 50th B-day) was grand and God-blessed. (Pictures of the wedding are available by clicking on the links in the block to the left.) Both brides report being exceedingly happy and blessed in their respective marriages. ‘Wish you could have been there. Brooklyn was never more beautiful.
Short and sweet: Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, is a little book that deserves a place on the shelf next to Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. It is 150 pages but I am tempted to underline nearly every sentence. Nearly. We don’t agree with Rev. Newbigin’s embrace of the World Council of Churches (we can’t quite grasp the inconsistency, but, teku). One or two other caveats could be mentioned, but I’ll just say you’d be hard pressed to find a more brilliant or compact assessment of the church’s challenge in this generation. Request a copy with your donation of $100 until May 31st. Make it $150 or more and you may also request Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Klaas Schilder, Edited by J. Geertsema. It has a great essay by S.A. Strauss on Schilder’s view of the covenant.
I mustn’t close without offering you my deepest thanks for making our ministries a reality. And for your prayers—thank you.
Yours and His,
P.S. Ancaster Address and Louisiana Lectures are still available. Call or write.