For some time I’ve had a resource available here entitled Liturgical Helps. I prepared this document for myself a few years ago as a quick-reference for worship preparation. I’ve been sharing it here in case anyone else might find it useful. Since we adopted the 2014 Book of Praise in the Canadian Reformed Churches, this document really needed an update. I’ve finally revised it, and I’ve also added a bit more material. You can find version 2.0 of Liturgical Helps here.
A good study Bible can be a great blessing for one’s personal devotions. For a couple of years, I used a Bible without any notes and, while it was still edifying, there were many times where a passage would raise questions. Of course, it’s not that difficult for me to pull a commentary off the shelf to explore possible answers, but it’s far easier to have a good set of notes immediately at hand in your Bible. This is all the more true if you don’t have a sizeable collection of commentaries like most pastors do.
Over the last couple of years, many of our churches have been making the move over to the English Standard Version. Along with that move comes the question of what to purchase if you want to have a study Bible. While there are other choices available, the top two are generally going to be the ESV Study Bible and The Reformation Study Bible. Published by Crossway, the ESV Study Bible has been around for a few years already. The Reformation Study Bible has also been around in one form or another for a few years. Recently, however, Reformation Trust (a division of Ligonier Ministries) has issued a revised edition. In this article, I’m going to compare the ESV Study Bible and The Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition). The intent is to help you pick the study Bible that might best meet your needs or purposes.
Let’s begin with the “bread and butter” of a study Bible. Both the ESV Study Bible (ESB) and The Reformation Study Bible (RSB) contain extensive notes throughout both the Old and New Testament. However, the ESB is far more comprehensive in its notes. As an example, take Psalm 62:11, “Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this…” RSB offers nothing to explain this expression, but ESB notes, “To say once…twice is to indicate that the idea is sure, namely that to God belong both power (by which he can carry out his will; contrast v.9) and steadfast love (in which he has pledged himself to the faithful, and for which they may safely trust him).”
The quantity of notes needs to be seen in the light of the quality of the notes. ESB comes from a theological perspective that is generally consistent with historic Protestantism. The notes are mostly reliable and orthodox. However, RSB is far more so. The study notes in RSB are typically more in line with confessionally Reformed convictions. For example, 1 Timothy 2:1-7 has been a controversial passage in terms of the intent and extent of Christ’s atonement. It says that God desires all people to be saved, and Christ gave himself as a ransom for all. ESB gives the Calvinist and Arminian interpretations, but stops short of taking one side or the other. RSB, however, is committed to the historic Reformed understanding of these words: the “all” refers to all types of people. Similarly, the notes about passages dealing with speaking in tongues reveal ESB giving latitude to the continuationist view, whereas RSB is firmly cessationist (i.e. tongues ceased with the apostolic era).
We should also examine how these study Bibles treat the early chapters of Genesis. Unfortunately, both display some openness to less literal understandings of these chapters. Both are consequently more inclined to allow for alternative understandings of the days of creation. However, they are more careful when it comes to the origins of man, with RSB being the most insistent on Genesis 2:7, “man is not formed from pre-existent life.” A little later in Genesis, ESB is not committed to the flood being a global phenomenon, whereas RSB states on Genesis 6:17, “a worldwide flood is in view.”
Additional Study Resources with the Main Text
ESB absolutely outshines RSB in this department. In fact, I have not seen any study Bible ever that has all the resources found in ESB. ESB has numerous helpful charts – RSB has none. At Isaiah 13, for example, ESB has a chart laying out all the oracles against the nations in the prophets. James 5 has a chart illustrating how Leviticus 19 is used in that chapter. ESB also has timelines accompanying all the New Testament books and some of the Old Testament books – again, RSB falls short with nothing to compare. Perhaps the best features of all in ESB are the full colour maps and diagrams. These are plentiful and easy to read. They add a lot of insight into various passages. RSB has no diagrams of any sort, but does include some maps. Unfortunately, these are black and white, few in number, and with only microscopic print. Both RSB and ESB include introductions of the Bible, but the ESB introductions are far more comprehensive and helpful. Finally, RSB includes 70 theological notes scattered throughout on a range of topics including infant baptism, legalism, the unforgivable sin, and divorce. From what I can tell, these notes generally represent the Reformed confessional consensus on these topics.
Each of these study Bibles has a collection of resources following the biblical text. As one would expect, both include a small concordance (with ESB’s being more comprehensive). There’s also a daily reading plan included in both. There are articles in each study Bible on various subjects and ESB’s collection is fuller on this score. ESB also includes helpful features such as a section on “History of Salvation in the Old Testament” and “Old Testament Passages Cited in the New Testament.” However, the RSB includes a section of Reformed confessions. For Canadian Reformed users, having a copy of the Westminster Standards on hand in your study Bible could definitely be considered a plus. This reviewer does question the inclusion of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, especially since it largely repeats the Westminster Confession (except on points like infant baptism).
When you purchase a study Bible these days, generally you can expect to get some accompanying online extras. The ESB website offers a fully searchable text of the ESV Study Bible with all the notes and resources. Additionally, you get access to all of John Piper’s sermons plus cross-referencing to the most significant Reformation confessions. Although the RSB study notes are available for free at BibleGateway.com, RSB itself does not offer an online searchable text of any kind. However, registering your RSB does open access to a variety of teaching resources from Ligonier Ministries, including some electronic books, and a six month subscription to Table Talk magazine.
Which to Choose?
There are obviously pros and cons for each of these study Bibles. Whichever one you use, it must be used with discernment. Unlike the text of Scripture itself, the notes and resources are not inerrant. The question really comes down to one’s own ability to discern. What really complicates matters is that most people overestimate their level of discernment – it’s a function of our innate sinful pride. That said, the ESB would be more suitable for a mature Bible student – it requires a greater level of discernment, especially because of the subtlety of some of the errors it features. Since it generally a follows a confessionally Reformed track, the RSB would be a more a suitable study Bible for young people or those who have not yet invested a lot of time and effort into sharpening their theological knowledge. Both study Bibles can be used with great benefit and I certainly would rather anyone diligently use either than none.
Since I soon hope to be taking up a call in their midst, I’m taking special interest in the upcoming Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA). Like the CanRC, the FRCA has a synod once every three years. This year’s synod is being convened by the Baldivis FRC and it’s scheduled to begin on Monday June 22. In this post, I’ll review some of the items of interest on the agenda for this synod. If this was a CanRC synod, I might venture to offer a prognosis as well. However, because I’m still rather out of touch with the FRCA, I dare not make any predictions as to how things might go, nor editorialize all that much.
Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ)
For many years, the FRCA have been discussing fraternal relations with the RCNZ. The major obstacle in establishing a sister-church relationship has been the relationship of the RCNZ with the Christian Reformed Church of Australia. The lengthy report for this upcoming synod can be found here. To summarize, the RCNZ/CRCA relationship changed to such a degree that the deputies no longer feel it should be an obstacle. The recommendation is to proceed to establishing full ecclesiastical fellowship/a sister-church relationship.
Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated)
Several of the sister churches of the RCN are deeply concerned about their direction. On their part, the FRCA has sent a letter of admonition. Since then, the situation has not improved, in fact, quite the opposite. The question is: what to do now? Two alternatives are presented in the report (the report begins on page 90, the recommendations begin on page 100). The first alternative is to sever the relationship completely. The second is to suspend the relationship and continue to interact with the RCN. The FRCA Synod will have to decide which alternative to follow, or perhaps to take a somewhat different direction.
From what I understand, most of the FRCA uses the New King James Version. However, the two congregations in Tasmania have been long-time users of the NIV. The 2011 edition of the NIV has raised many concerns around gender-neutral language. A committee was appointed to examine the 2011 NIV, as well as the ESV as a potential alternative. However, because of various circumstances, the committee wasn’t able to work together to produce a report. There is a report going to this Synod, but it’s only authored by one of the committee members. The report affirms that the problems with the 2011 NIV are significant. It also speaks favourably of the ESV. But what can a Synod do with a report signed by only one committee member? I hear that proper ecclesiastical ways to address this are being sought by the churches and may be sent to Synod. There should be a way out of this quandary.
Till now the FRCA has sent its seminary students to the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton. The FRCA also supports CRTS financially. However, there has been some talk of having at least some of this theological training done “down under.” The Deputies for Training for the Ministry were mandated to investigate whether the first year of training could be done in Australa, either through distance-learning, or through other means. Their report concludes that this is not feasible and the status quo should be maintained. Is that the end of the matter then? No. At least one church (Rockingham) has interacted with this report by advocating a different approach: they’re proposing to set the wheels in motion for a full-fledged Australian Reformed seminary, and sooner rather than later. It will be very interesting to see what Synod decides on this point.
Book of Praise
Finally, there’s the question of the Book of Praise. For many years, the FRCA and CanRC shared a common songbook. The Australians simply used our 1984 Book of Praise. However, in the last number of years, the CanRC have come out with a new edition of the Book of Praise. Among other things, it has revised wordings of the Psalms and some new hymns. From the sounds of it, the FRCA especially don’t feel the compulsion to add any new hymns and they also have some other misgivings. This puts them in a bind. The 1984 Book of Praise is out of print, yet the 2014 Book of Praise is not completely acceptable. The report of the Deputies for the Book of Praise can be found here. The Deputies surveyed the churches and found that more churches are in favour of an Australian Book of Praise than are opposed to it. They ask the Synod to recognize that and then, if the churches request it, that new deputies be appointed to execute it. In other words, if one or more churches takes the initiative upon reading this report, things could be moving forward towards a uniquely Australian edition of the Book of Praise.
This Synod will be faced with some tough decisions. May the LORD grant the delegates the wisdom they need to do their work in a way that pleases him and serves the good of his church.
The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, William VanDoodewaard. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Hardcover, 400 pages, $37.85.
Once in a very rare while I come across a book which brings me to think, “If I had the means, I would get a copy of this into every single Canadian Reformed home.” This is one of those books. If I couldn’t get it into every single CanRC home, I would settle for getting it into the hands of every single minister, elder, and deacon. The Quest for the Historical Adam is not only relevant, but crucially important for these days in which a biblical view of origins is under pressure. This volume could do a world of good if it would only receive the careful attention it deserves.
The author, William VanDoodewaard, is a church history professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a minister of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). For those unfamiliar with this church, the ARP is a long-time member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Alongside his seminary teaching, Dr. VanDoodewaard is also an ARP church planter in Grand Rapids. Apart from his doctoral dissertation, this is his first published book.
The title of this volume plays off a much earlier book by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In that book, Schweitzer examined how historical conceptions of Jesus led to a variety of Jesuses. While his book had some value, unfortunately, Schweitzer did not honour the authority of Scripture, so his conclusions were necessarily flawed. However, VanDoodewaard has the highest view of Scripture as he traces out how people have variously conceived of Adam. The author points that contemporary debates over origins are often afflicted with what he calls “historical amnesia.” This volume seeks to recover our collective memory of how ages past have written about, preached about, and thought about our first parents and their origins.
The first chapter provides a general overview of what Scripture says about Adam. From this overview, the author reaches this conclusion, “…there is no inherent ground to posit anything aside from a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans on the sixth day of creation” (18). The following five chapters trace out the post-biblical history of how Christians have looked at the early chapters of Genesis. If anything is clear from these chapters, it is that there has been a consensus view for millennia. The consensus is that the first chapters of Genesis must be taken seriously as a historical record. When it comes to human origins, the vast majority of Christian interpreters have understood Scripture to teach a special or immediate creation of Adam and Eve, a creation which allows for no prior biological ancestry of any sort. The Quest for the Historical Adam concludes with a chapter entitled, “What Difference Does It Make?” In this chapter, the author lays out ten areas of doctrine that are affected by how one views the origin of Adam. He convincingly makes the case that no one can soundly argue that one’s view of origins can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of one’s theology. Even taking an agnostic view or allowing for latitude in the matter will invariably have some impact.
The heart of the book is the historical overview. Let me mention five highlights that are worth sharing. There are many more highlights that I could mention, but I hope these five will whet your appetite and motivate you to buy the book.
Today we sometimes encounter the idea of pre-Adamites – human beings or human-like creatures (hominids) who lived before and beside Adam. One of the first to promote a form of this idea was a Frenchman named Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676). While he worked with the text of Genesis in his book Men Before Adam, he did so in a rather revisionist way. He argued that only the Jews were descended from Adam and Genesis 2 only described where the Jews came from. Everyone else came from other groups of human beings who had existed long before Adam. What motivated La Peyrère to develop this theory? He wanted to make Genesis more reasonable so that unbelievers would be more receptive to the Christian faith (143). Does this sound familiar?
La Peyrère developed a small following in Europe. His ideas were widely discussed, but uniformly rejected by Reformed theologians. His ideas were also rejected by Roman Catholic figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Following what Scripture taught on this matter, Pascal held to a young earth of about 6000 years age and “was also explicitly critical of pre-Adamite thought” (122).
Another valuable contribution of VanDoodewaard is his critique of historian Ronald Numbers. Numbers wrote an influential 1992 book entitled The Creationists in which he argued that a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis only exists in our modern day because of the influence of American creation scientists, and particularly through the writing of a Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price. “However,” writes VanDoodewaard, “more thorough scholarship reveals significant evidence of a strong stream of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that remained firmly in the millennia old tradition of a literal hermeneutic” (157). What Numbers and others have failed to see is that, entirely apart from twentieth-century creation science, theologians and clergymen have for centuries maintained a literal reading of Genesis, reaching their conclusions based on the text alone. Our author gives several good examples with Dutch-American Reformed theologians like Geerhardus Vos, William Heyns, Foppe Ten Hoor, and Louis Berkhof.
An important part of the work of a historian is discerning patterns. The Quest for the Historical Adam reveals an important pattern in thinking about origins. It starts with sources outside of Scripture and Christian theology pressuring an alternative explanation – these sources could be philosophical, scientific, literary, or archaeological. Under that pressure, interpreters begin to make allowances for alternative explanations. Other generations eventually arise which take things a step further and assert these alternative explanations more stridently, also following through on their logical consequences. This pattern is evident throughout the book.
As mentioned earlier, Dr. VanDoodewaard is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. It is not surprising then to find his church and its struggles with this question mentioned. He notes that the ARP adopted a synodical teaching statement in 2012 that affirmed the clear biblical teaching on origins. He contrasts that with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He notes that efforts were made to have the PCA clearly rule out aberrant teachings on origins. A 2012 effort to have the PCA General Assembly make a teaching statement on this matter floundered. Why? There was a convergence of two broad camps. VanDoodewaard writes:
Some argued that the confessional standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms provided sufficient clarity on the topic – positing that if there were concerns, they ought to be pursued through the means of church discipline. Other delegates held that belief in evolutionary biological processes in human origins, as circumscribed by Collins, Keller, or others, was harmonious with Scripture and represented a legitimate latitude of ecclesiastical theology (248).
These two lines of argument paralyzed the PCA and prevented it from taking a stand. The result is that various forms of theistic evolution continue to have a comfortable home in the PCA and very little, if anything, can be done about it. Will we in the Canadian Reformed Churches learn from this history while the opportunity is still there?
Obviously, I have a great deal of appreciation for this book. However, there are a couple of oversights that I noticed. Chapter 3 deals with “Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Eras.” While the author does spend some time with the Westminster Standards (especially the issue of “in the space of six days”), he disregards the Three Forms of Unity or other Reformed confessions. This is important in our day when we hear it asserted by some that theistic evolution falls within the bounds of our confessions. Nevertheless, VanDoodewaard’s research certainly does support the position that in the era in which these confessions were originally written, it would have been unthinkable for forms of theistic evolution to be tolerated in Reformed churches. Chapter 6 deals with the 1950s to the present. The author has some discussion about developments in the Christian Reformed Church, but there could have been more said. For instance, it would be helpful for readers to see how the tolerance of theistic evolution in the CRC grew out of a weakened view of biblical authority starting in the 1950s, especially under the influence of the Free University of Amsterdam.
The Quest for the Historical Adam is a unique contribution to a vitally important topic. It might be a bit technical at times for some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. As intimated in my introduction, this is especially an important book for office bearers. As those who have promised to “oppose, refute, and help prevent” errors conflicting with God’s Word, we need to educate ourselves about those errors and the patterns that lead to them being accepted. This is all the more case when an error is right before us, threatening to undo us. I heartily commend Dr. VanDoodewaard for writing this valuable book and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it. May the day hasten when historians look back and say that the publication of this book was a turning point for the maintenance of orthodoxy on origins!
This coming Sunday we have the ordination/installation of office bearers at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church. I plan to preach on the well-known passage of Ezekiel 3:16-21, where the prophet is appointed a watchman over Israel. As part of my preparation, I was reading John Calvin’s commentary on these verses. He has some very good insights and application. However, what really struck me was his prayer. The material in this commentary was originally delivered in the context of weekday lectures or sermons in Geneva. Before starting, Calvin typically prayed the following:
Grant us, LORD, to meditate on the heavenly mysteries of your wisdom, with true progress in piety, to your glory, and our edification. Amen.
Then after each lecture/sermon, he would have a prayer suited to the particular verses he’d been expounding. The English translation of Thomas Myers (later republished by Baker) includes Calvin’s prayer after Ezekiel 3:18-20. Unfortunately, it leaves a bit to be desired in terms of readability. With the help of some friends who are far more proficient at Latin than I am, I hereby offer this improved translation:
O Almighty God,
You appoint the ministers of your doctrine. You raise them up, watchmen over us. You do so on the condition that they be vigilant for our safety. Therefore, grant that we also may be attentive to their instruction, and avoid that double destruction through our own fault, by error and obstinacy. But if we should happen to wander, may we at least, having been held back, come to our senses and so return into the right way, never to desert it again. May we persevere unto the end, that we may eventually enjoy that eternal blessedness which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.