Category Archives: Book notes

Smoking

Let me share one more little bit of this highly recommended book on living a holy life. Chapter 5 is entitled “Conflict Zone” and it’s about the inner struggle that all Christians experience. On page 98, Ferguson writes:

A friend who in earlier life had smoked cigarettes, and found pleasure in doing so, once explained to me that every time he sensed the aroma of smoke from someone’s cigarette he felt the old instincts and attractions surround and invade him, and pull at his desires. It was a battle to resist. His addiction had been broken. Otherwise there would not have been a battle. But it was a struggle. This is but a hint and pale reflection of the nature and magnitude of the conflict between flesh and Spirit. The world is full of smoke.

That would be a great sermon illustration!


“Is it ok to do X on Sundays?”

I’ve just finished Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. As with all Ferguson’s books, this one is a winner. It’s rooted in Scripture and Christ-centered from start to finish. Let me share a little tidbit. This is actually from a footnote in Appendix 4 on the Fourth Commandment. It’s a great answer to a common question:

When Christians ask: ‘Is it ok for me do X on Sundays?’ the first response should normally not be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but ‘Why would you be doing it?’ The most common answer to that question is probably ‘Because I don’t have time for it in the rest of the week.’ This highlights the importance of understanding the whole of the fourth commandment. The problem here is not how we spend Sunday; it is how we are using Monday to Saturday. We are living the week the wrong way around, as if there had been no resurrection! Use Sunday as a day of rest, worship, fellowship first and we will almost inevitably begin to discipline our use of time in the other six days of the week. Grasp this and the Sabbath principle becomes one of the simplest and most helpful of all God’s gifts. The burden-free day at the beginning of the week both regulates the days that follow and refreshes us for them. (p.266)


Best and Worst Reads of 2020

This year I’ve read over 30 books, mostly non-fiction, mostly theological. My top pick for the whole year is Albert Mohler’s The Gathering Storm. You can read my review here. This book provides important analysis about the cultural situation in which we find ourselves. It’s concise (223 pages), but yet incisive.

A runner-up is in the same vein of Christian cultural analysis: Lyle Shelton’s I Kid You Not. This one is more geared to Aussie readers, but it could profit readers in other countries too. It’s largely a memoir of battles fought by one of Australia’s leading social conservatives. My review is here.

I don’t usually set out to read stinkers. Most of the time I’m asked to read and review them. In 2020, there were a few. Some I haven’t reviewed, but some are important enough and influential enough that they need a critical look. Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins is one such book. It’s essentially an extended argument for theistic evolution. It’s riddled with theological problems, including some that border on heresy. I spent a lot of time on this one so you won’t have to. My review was published in several parts at Creation Without Compromise.


What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

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What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.


Calvinist Monks?

I’ve been reading Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. It’s an enjoyable survey of this time period, though approached from the angle of a historian who presents himself as having no dog in any of the theological fights described. Chapter 12 is on “Calvin and Calvinism” and I thought this excerpt was particularly thought-provoking and worth sharing here:

One of the first reforms instituted by Calvin upon his return to Geneva in 1542 was the creation of a Psalter, a hymnal composed entirely of psalms from the Bible. Subsequent editions added more psalms to the original Geneva version, culminating with the 1562 edition, which contained all 150 psalms in French, the language of the people, set to simple, singer-friendly tunes in poetic meter. The Genevan Psalter was a collaborative effort, but chiefly the work of the musician Louis Bourgeois, the poet Clement Marot, and the churchman Theodore de Beze. Eventually reprinted hundreds of times and translated into many other languages, the Geneva Psalter would come to have an enormous influence on Calvinists everywhere, as the psalms became both a way to pray to God and a way to listen to God. It helps to keep in mind, however, that while the psalter sought to make a biblical text the heart and soul of the liturgy — to ritualize the sola scriptura principle — it was not at all a Protestant invention, but rather a continuation of monastic piety.

In many ways, Genevans lived up to the imperative ideal of St. Benedict’s monastic rule: ora et labora (Pray and work)! Ironically, Calvinists ended up worshiping in a way similar to that of the medieval monks they so despised, singing the Psalter on a regular basis as a community. They also sanctified work itself, as a holy calling, and the practiced discipline and exclusion. Geneva, like a well-run monastery, was no welcoming refuge for sinners or slackers. But the parallels end there. Calvinists were committed to transforming the world by living in it, not by setting themselves apart, and there is a world of difference between these two ways of life. Calvinists saw themselves as a continuation not of monasticism, but rather of Israel, as God’s chosen people. And within this self-conception one very important difference distinguished Calvinists from the ancient Israelites: the Promised Land of the Calvinists was the whole world, not just some tiny patch of arid land wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Carlos Eire, Reformations, p.316

Some of my own thoughts:

The idea of a continuation of monastic piety is interesting, but I doubt it would have resonated with Calvin or other Genevan clerics. They would probably have argued that psalm-singing is part of the church’s patristic, rather than monastic, heritage. In other words, it goes back to the early church and the Reformation was recovering early-church practice.

Second, the expression ora et labora certainly has had currency in Reformed churches. In Canada I remember a Bible study group for young people which bore that name — one which is indeed derived from Benedictine monasticism.

Finally, I appreciate Eire’s contrast between Calvinism and monasticism in terms of how to regard life in this world. The idea of cutting yourself off from the world (or world-flight) is indeed not historically Calvinistic. In this regard, some streams of Anabaptism are more in line with monastic ideals.