Walmart’s Wisdom

Every year each home in our congregation gets a visit from a pair of elders.    Over the years, in the congregations I’ve served, I’ve occasionally heard negative comments about this practice.  Some feel it’s invasive and maybe even a little cult-like.

However, even the world sees the value of similar practices.  Some time ago I was reading an article about Walmart stores in North America.  Walmart has one of the largest fleets of business jets in the world.  One of the reasons they have all these business jets is because they want their managers home every evening with their families.  Walmart has regional managers and these regional managers have to visit all the stores in their assigned area.  The company wants these managers to be out there in person.  I don’t know how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this policy, but certainly pre-COVID they recognized that a face-to-face visit was best.  If you’re running a big business like Walmart, that makes sense.

I’m not saying that the church is a business, but the same wisdom applies.  Elders are not managers, but shepherds.  The best way for shepherds to know what’s going on with their sheep is to get out there and visit with them face-to-face in their homes.  It just makes sense. 

It’s also taught to us in Scripture.  In Acts 20, Paul was saying farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church.  He told them he carried out his ministry in the church there by visiting people in their homes.  Paul did this with the idea that his way of working would set a pattern for the elders. They should follow his example.  And so should we.

Of course, the pandemic has affected church life in this regard too.  Here in Australia we’ve come to the end of our home visitation season and the elders in our church were eventually able to visit almost everyone in person.  However, there were a few months where home visits had to be suspended due to COVID restrictions.  If you’re reading this in a place where COVID restrictions are preventing in-person home visits for now, please realize the vital importance of this way God’s flock is shepherded and pray for the time when it can be re-implemented face-to-face.

Finally, for elders, let me highly recommend this article by Peter Holtvluwer on improving home visits.  He offers some great advice.      


Jay Adams, Pioneer of Nouthetic Counselling, Dies at 91

Jay Adams died on November 14, 2020.  He was 91 years old.  If his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his association with counselling.  Adams was the pioneer of nouthetic Christian counselling, a theory of counselling based on what the Bible teaches about sin, human nature, and the dynamics of meaningful change.  However, Jay Adams deserves to be remembered for more than just his contributions to Christian counselling.  Let’s briefly survey his life and work.

Training and Ministry

Adams studied theology at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia – he actually began studying there at the age of 15.  He later received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and Masters in Sacred Theology from Temple University.  Completing his academic training, Adams was awarded a Ph.D. in speech from the University of Missouri.

From 1963-1983, he taught pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Prior to that, he pastored a number of Presbyterian churches, including an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.  Over the last decades of his life, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held his ministerial credentials.  He was the founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as well as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies.   

Basic Orientation

I began reading Jay Adams as a university student.  One thing that immediately impressed me was his real commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith.  He always took the Bible seriously.  Whatever topic he was writing on, from Christian living to counselling to preaching, sola Scriptura was his touchstone.  You might not agree with his exegesis or conclusions (I certainly haven’t always), but you have to agree that this is at least the right approach. 

Adams was following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til argued that Reformed principles, drawn from Scripture, must be consistently applied in apologetics.  Jay Adams took that approach and applied it to pastoral theology.  The starting point and governing standard must always be the Word of God. Prior to Adams, this hadn’t been fully recognized in Christian counselling.

Critics

Not everyone was enthusiastic about Adams’ approach, especially as it applied to counselling.  For example, in 1977, an article appeared in Clarion by Dutch theologian Cornelis Trimp.  The article (originally a lecture delivered at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary) expressed some appreciation for Adams, but was overall quite critical.  Trimp’s critique would be influential in the Canadian Reformed Churches for years to come. 

In 1999, I had the opportunity to meet Jay Adams briefly at a conference in Buffalo where he was speaking.  I specifically asked him about Trimp’s critique and what he thought of it.  He said that he thought it was unfair that Trimp based his critique on just one early book, Competent to Counsel.  After Competent to Counsel and before Trimp’s critique was published, Adams wrote several more books where he explained himself further and answered many of the criticisms Trimp offered.                     

Other critics raised questions about Adams’ concept of habituation.  In Adams’ thinking, habitual actions are automatic, second nature, and unconscious.  They can be good or bad, which is to say that they have a moral character.  In 2003, George W. Schwab wrote an important article for the Journal of Biblical Counseling in which he persuasively argued that Adams was more influenced by O. Hobart Mowrer and William Glasser than by Scripture in formulating his views on habituation.

His Abiding Contribution

Keep in mind that Adams wrote well over 100 books.  When you write that much, you can expect that there will be disagreements and critiques – and there were many of them.  Some of the critiques had more to do with Adams’ tone or style, sometimes perceived as too strident or too forceful.  Some of the critiques were unfair or prejudicial, while others were on point and advanced the discussion.  Many of Adams’ successors at CCEF, men like the late David Powlison, used Adams’ basic biblical approach and helped move Christian counselling forward.  They all owe a debt of gratitude to Adams for getting the discussion going.     

My life and ministry have certainly been enriched by Jay Adams.  Perhaps he has something to offer you too.  Let me make some suggestions to finish off:Competent to Counsel was one of Adams’ earliest books, published in 1970.  It is an important book, but it leaves many questions hanging.  If you’re interested in understanding the basics of his nouthetic counselling methodology, a better place to start would be A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.   A good follow-up would be How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  A couple of other books that are more directed to the regular “person in the pew”:  What To Do On Thursday: A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures and The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image.  Preachers and aspiring preachers need to read his Preaching with Purpose and Truth Applied:  Application in Preaching.


Aiming to Please — Now on Kindle

Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship is now available from Amazon on Kindle.

$9.99 at Amazon.ca

$11.99 at Amazon.com

$15.65 at Amazon.com.au


Follow the Evidence?

There was a refrain frequently heard on early episodes of TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Gus Grissom was training rookie crime scene investigators, sharing with them his many years of experience in the field.  Grissom would often say, “Follow the evidence…”  The understanding was that just following the evidence would lead to the perpetrator of the crime.  Following the evidence would lead to the truth. 

In the world of TV crime scene investigation, that might usually work as a sound philosophy.  Even there occasionally writers and producers have explored the possibility that the evidence can be tainted by factors related to those investigating it.  The evidence isn’t always interpreted objectively and thus conclusions (right or wrong) can still ultimately be reached on the basis of prejudice or gut feeling.  The philosophy sounds good in principle, but it doesn’t always work out in practice.

Moving into the real world, the principle of “follow the evidence” is the basic philosophy behind much of Christian apologetics today.  Walk into a vanilla Christian bookstore these days and if they have an apologetics section, likely everything there will be based on this principle.  Lee Strobel is popular with his The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, and The Case for Christ.  I won’t discount everything he writes in these books, but it should be noted that his basic principle is the same as CSI Grissom:  follow the evidence.  The same is true for the majority of others writing on the subject of apologetics today.  For that reason alone, this principle needs critical evaluation.

In discussions about theistic evolution, the allegation has sometimes been made that young university students are sent into turmoil when encountering the evidence for evolution.  As the story has it, these Christian students were taught creation science at home, church, and school.  They were told how the evidence made it clear that God had created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) in six ordinary days some thousands of years ago, not millions or billions.  Arriving at university, they encounter a different batch of evidences not previously considered.  This sends their faith into a tailspin and, so the story goes, some of them even end up committing suicide.            

On a superficial level, we can join in bemoaning this approach to such issues.  We can agree that something has gone awry with those young university students.  From the perspective of theistic evolutionists, the problem rests with creation science producing faulty evidence because of certain faith convictions regarding creation.  From our perspective, staking your faith on extra-biblical evidences is always problematic.  Let me explain why.

The Theological Background of Evidential Apologetics      

Evidential apologetics is a method of defending the faith which rests upon the use of evidence.  This system of apologetics is usually traced back to Joseph Butler (1692-1752), an Anglican bishop.  Butler lived during the time of the Enlightenment, also known as “The Age of Reason.”  Serious challenges were being posed against the Christian faith.  Rationalism, the belief that reason could provide the basis of all knowledge, had infiltrated not only society, but also many churches.  Even Reformed theology was affected (or better: infected). 

Butler recognized that Enlightenment philosophy endangered the Christian faith.  In particular, he saw the danger deism posed.  Deism is the belief that God is a clockmaker.  He created the universe and then wound it up like a clock.  He removed himself from it and is no longer intimately involved with it.  According to deism, God takes an arms-length approach to the world.  Butler rightly saw that this philosophy was in conflict with the teachings of the Bible.     

In 1736, Butler published a book entitled The Analogy of Religion.  This work was a response to deism.  It was a defense of the faith.  Butler aimed to show there are no sound objections to the Christian religion.  He said all the evidence, especially the evidence in the natural world, points to the very probable truth of Christianity.  As long as a person doesn’t ignore the abundance of evidence, he or she shouldn’t reject the Bible or any of its teachings.  Unprejudiced minds, said Butler, would see the design inherent in the world and almost inevitably reach the conclusion that there is a Creator.  A fair evaluation of the external evidence would likely push the open-minded unbeliever to accept the Bible.  Butler purposed to demonstrate the truth of the Bible through facts, evidence and logic – and he believed it was not only possible to do this, but also pleasing to God.

When evaluating Butler’s approach, we have to remember the importance of what we call presuppositions.  These are our most non-negotiable beliefs or assumptions about the way the world really is.  Butler was an Arminian and one of his presuppositions was that man hadn’t fallen so far as to completely corrupt his thinking.  He didn’t confess the doctrine of pervasive (or total) depravity found in the Canons of Dort, but repudiated it.  This had consequences for his system of apologetics.  So did another related presupposition:  the freedom of the will of fallen man.  According to Butler and other Arminians, fallen man retains free will to choose for or against God.  He need only use his faculties rightly in order to make the right choice. 

While Butler saw the dangers of the Enlightenment and wanted to combat deism in particular, the weapons of his warfare were earthly and unscriptural.  We might wish that Butler was a mere footnote in the history of Christian apologetics, but unfortunately his approach became widely accepted.  Much of what we see today in non-Reformed (“evangelical”) apologetics finds its historical roots in the Arminian apologetics of this Anglican.

Evidential apologetics, historically and in its modern form, makes its case based not only on the evidence (and the nature of evidence), but also on a certain understanding of human nature.  According to this system, human nature isn’t pervasively depraved.  The human intellect isn’t fallen or dead in sin, only weakened or sick.  Neutrality isn’t only possible, but a reality.  When confronted with the evidence, and with perhaps a little help from God, an unprejudiced person will recognize the truth and turn to the Bible and believe it.  This is Arminian theology applied to apologetics.              

Unfortunately, this system has been appropriated by many involved with creation science.  Many creation scientists have been Arminian in their theological convictions, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s only consistent for Arminians to adopt evidential apologetics, whether in general, or whether specially applied to the question of origins.  Inconsistency emerges when Reformed believers adopt this approach.  “Following the evidence” isn’t our way.      

A Biblical Approach

When we approach the question of evidence, we need to do so with biblical presuppositions.  There are several of them we could discuss.  However, in the interests of time and space, let me restrict our discussion to two of the most important.  These are the presuppositions — the non-negotiable beliefs that will govern how we consider the place and use of evidence in apologetics.

The first is our confession regarding the nature of fallen man.  As Ephesians 2:1 puts it, the unregenerate person is dead in transgressions and sins.  This spiritual death extends to all the parts of a fallen human being:  heart, mind, and will are all without a sign of life.  When it comes to the Christian faith, fallen humanity doesn’t have the capacity to interpret the evidence rightly.  What fallen people need is regeneration.  They need to be made alive by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit needs to open eyes so that they may see, understand, and believe.  The Holy Spirit does this work of regeneration through the Word of God.  Therefore, the Word of God, not external evidences, needs to be the focus of our apologetical efforts.  From a Reformed perspective, apologetics involves bringing the Word of God to bear on unbelief to expose its futility and to vindicate and commend the Christian worldview.     

A second necessary presupposition builds on that.  We always start with a belief that the Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.  Those doctrinal positions are not conclusions that we reach through reasoning and proofs.  They are held in faith.  We hold to what is called the self-attesting authority of Scripture.  That means the Bible attests or confirms its own authority.  It doesn’t need to be proven.  The Bible claims to be the Word of God and we receive it as such.  This is a settled truth for Christians.  Therefore, the Bible is the basis and standard for all our apologetics.  We’re defending the Bible and the biblical worldview, but the Bible is also the guide for how we defend the Bible.  The Bible gives us the means and strategies to use in defending the Bible.

Where does that leave external evidences?  Well, for one thing, we don’t build our system of apologetics upon them.  Instead, our system has to be grounded on the Word of God.  The Word is the supreme authority, not outside evidence.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t promise to regenerate people through external evidences.  He does promise to do that through the Scriptures, though it isn’t inevitable in every case, obviously.  What’s more, because evidence is always interpreted evidence, and the interpretation is always done by sinful minds, evidence must always be evaluated according to the supreme standard of the Word of God.  Since there are no neutral facts or neutral methods for considering the facts, the Word must always be recognized as standing over the facts.  It must be the grid through which the “facts” are sifted. 

There is a place for evidence in apologetics and in the debate about origins.  Evidence from outside the Bible can corroborate the Bible’s teachings.  However, it isn’t the starting place, nor is it the authority.  Moreover, external evidences can be fickle.  What was thought to be evidence in one generation can turn out to have been misinterpreted by the next.  How do you stay off what one writer called “the evidentialist roller coaster”?  How do you stand firm against humanists and theistic evolutionist compromisers?  Not by retreating to evidence, but by standing firm on what the Word of God teaches.  And by evaluating all evidence in the light of the Word of God.  That also means being open to the possibility that external evidences, whether for or against biblical teaching, may be wrongly interpreted.  When it comes to evidences, one should retain a level of skepticism.  After all, creation scientists and humanists/theistic evolutionists are all human beings, prone to sin and to mistakes.  The only firm foundation is the Word of God.              

Conclusion

“Follow the evidence” might be acceptable for fictional TV characters, but in God’s world his children can’t accept this procedure when it comes to apologetics.  To “follow the evidence,” as if we are all neutral observers of the world is to sell out on our fundamental presuppositions.  It’s regrettable that the surge of interest in apologetics has led some in our Reformed community to dabble with evidentialist apologetics.  It’s sad too that we have often imbibed these apologetics as mediated to us through some creation scientists and their organizations.

Thankfully, in the last number of years, some creation scientists have adopted a Reformed, presuppositional approach to the question of origins.  Most notable are Dr. Jonathan Sarfati and Dr. Jason Lisle. Dr. Sarfati is associated with Creation Ministries International, and Dr. Lisle with Answers in Genesis.  Some time ago I reviewed Lisle’s book, The Ultimate Proof: Resolving the Origins Debate, and I commend it to you as a good example of how to apply Reformed apologetics to this issue.  Some of Lisle’s final words in The Ultimate Proof provide a suitable conclusion:  “Our defense of the faith comes from learning to think and to argue in a biblical way.  God is logical, and we should be too.  God tells us that all knowledge is in him (Col. 2:2-3), so we should train ourselves to recognize this fact” (173).


Recommended General Resources for Elders

I created this resource for my elders and I’ll share it here too. These are just general resources about the office of elder — I haven’t included books, etc. that focus on specific elements of the office like home visits, counselling, or church polity.

Books

The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture, Cornelis Van Dam.  Phillipsburg: P &R, 2009.  Paperback, 283 pages.

An excellent biblical study of the office of elder, with many practical pieces of wisdom scattered throughout.  Written by a retired OT professor from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  A full review can be found here.

https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/book-review-the-elder-todays-ministry-rooted-in-all-of-scripture/

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The Elder and His Work, David Dickson.  Phillipsburg: P & R, 2004.  Paperback, 129 pages.

Even though it’s an older book (first appearing in 1883), this one has retained its value over the years.  If you’re going to read just one book on the eldership, make it this one.  It’s not long, plus it’s both practical and biblical.  Dickson was a Presbyterian, but it’s not difficult to transfer what he writes over to a continental Reformed context. 

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With a Shepherd’s Heart: Reclaiming the Pastoral Office of Elder, John R. Sittema.  Grandville:  Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1996.  Paperback, 271 pages.

In every church I’ve served, the elders have studied this book.  It’s a classic.

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Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons, ed. Michael Brown.  Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2008.  Paperback, 274 pages.

This volume is multi-author, with all the writers being pastors/professors who (at that time) hailed from the United Reformed Churches of North America.  Tends to be more on the biblical/theological side, but there are many practical pointers and discussions as well.

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Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons, eds. William Boekestein and Steven Swets.  Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2019.  Paperback, 306 pages.

A follow-up to Called to Serve with much more practical content.  Our elders are currently studying this one together. 

Websites

–The online edition of a resource created by CanRC pastor Rev. D. Agema. 

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https://headhearthand.org/blog/2011/01/06/the-shepherd-leader/

–A helpful blog post by Dr. David Murray on what it means to lead the sheep, applies to pastors and elders.