Category Archives: Sacramentology

CRCA Synod 2018

The Christian Reformed Churches of Australia held their synod from May 6 to 11 in Melbourne.  For those unaware, the CRCA is not the antipodean equivalent of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), although they do have ecumenical relations.  The CRCA was formed through post-war Dutch immigration and today consists of over 50 congregations throughout Australia.  Besides the CRCNA, and unlike them, the CRCA also has ecumenical relations with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (“ecumenical fellowship”) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Last year, the CRCA also joined the International Conference of Reformed Churches.

A few items of interest from this recent synod:

In the area of ecumenical relations, the CRCA synod decided to suspend their relationships with two sister churches in South Africa.  The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and the Netherdutch Reformed Church of South Africa  have both made synodical decisions compromising the biblical view of homosexuality.  If there is no repentance in these South African churches by 2021, the next CRCA synod will terminate these relationships.

Until recently the CRCA Church Order stated in article 56:  “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship twice each Sunday unless valid reasons make this impractical.”  A proposal to change this was discussed and approved.  The CRCA Church Order now reads:  “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship at least once a Sunday.”  This effectively makes two worship services optional in the CRCA.

Finally, there was a noteworthy discussion regarding children at the Lord’s Supper.  According to the official Short Minutes a proposal was tabled to allow children access to the Lord’s table “on the basis of their covenantal membership and exercising an age and ability appropriate understanding of God’s grace and how it applies to them.”   After extensive discussion, a committee was appointed “to review previous synodical, theological, and exegetical studies, to consult with churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, consider whether the practice is a confessional matter, and to clarify other theological issues and practical implications.”  This committee has been mandated to report to the next synod in 2021.

Of course, other matters were discussed as well, and you can read a longer summary of them all here.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Supervised Lord’s Supper

Each month Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, has a column entitled “Letters from New Zealand.”  This column features historical correspondence from D.G. Vanderpyl, a long-serving elder in the RCNZ and, at one time, their stated clerk.  The February 2018 issue sees Vanderpyl commenting on the supervision of the Lord’s Supper in the RCNZ.  He notes (writing in September 1978) that the RCNZ practices “closed communion.”  The elders supervise admission to the table and only those admitted by the elders are permitted to partake.

Vanderpyl shares a number of reasons why Reformed churches have a closed Lord’s Supper with supervision by the elders:

Elders have the responsibility to superintend (shepherd) the Church of Jesus Christ to see that all things are done decently and in order, 1 Cor. 14:40, Acts 20:28-31, 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.

Open communion means that the session [a.k.a. consistory] must measure with two different standards:  Local members are under the continuous disciplinary supervision of the session while the visitors are permitted to come to the Lord’s Table without any exercise of supervision on the part of the session.

At open communion elders have no prior knowledge of who partakes of the sacrament, which allows for the possibility that visiting communicants may not have made a credible profession of faith earlier, may be living in open sin, or may even be under discipline elsewhere, all of which desecrates the Lord’s Table.

Open communion contradicts the Church Order, Articles 66 and 91 (Reformed Church of Australia), which specify that the session must ascertain whether those who come to the Lord’s Table are qualified to do so, namely, those who have professed their faith publicly and who are in good standing in the church.

Open communion contradicts the necessity of discharging and receiving members in orderly fashion by means of a letter or certificate from sister churches.

Open communion contradicts the commandments of love (Matthew 22:37-40) which indicate that, in order to love God and the neighbour properly, concern for the neighbour should include that he not be guilty of eating or drinking judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27ff.).

Open communion prevents conscientious members from exercising their right to come to the Lord’s Table because they do not wish to share responsibility for an improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30ff.).

All good reasons worthy of our consideration!  The continued practice of closed communion in churches like the CanRC and FRCA is not, historically speaking, idiosyncratic or arbitrary.


De Brès vs. Richardot: A Reformation Debate

If there’s one Reformation figure who deserves more attention, I would argue that it’s Guido de Brès.  Since I wrote my dissertation on the Belgic Confession (later published as For the Cause of the Son of God) in 2010, I’ve invested more effort in researching and writing about its author and his work for the gospel.  A few years ago, one of my projects was to translate and annotate one of the debates that de Brès had while he was in prison awaiting execution.  This was published in the 2010 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian.  Today, in commemoration of the 500th birthday of the Reformation, I’m pleased to offer you the full text of the debate, along with my introduction and notes: “De Brès versus Richardot: A Sixteenth-Century Debate Regarding the Lord’s Supper.”

 


“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.