Contextualization in Scripture

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Whenever I read a book, I usually make notes afterwards for future reference.  I finished reading Keller’s Center Church a couple of months ago, but I’m only finally getting around to writing my notes on it today.  As I’m doing so, I’ve across something worth sharing about contextualization.  Keller defines contextualization like this:  “…it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (page 89).  A little further in that chapter, he gives this helpful sidebar:

Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt. 13:31), while in Luke the sowing is in a “garden” (kepos, Luke 13:19).  Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite.  It appears that each gospel writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark — the word for “earth” or “ground” (ge, Mark 4:31) — for the sake of his hearers.  There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one.  Luke changes the wording precisely so that his audience is not distracted from…the lesson by puzzling over an…improbable practice.”  The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the original audience.”  (page 95)

I looked into this a little bit and it seems to check out as correct.  Just one small point:  I would prefer “apparent discrepancy” to “technical contradiction” (after all, fields and gardens are not exactly polar opposites).  The main point is that contextualization is evident in Scripture — therefore, we need to take it seriously too.  For myself, as a Canadian living and ministering in Australia, I try to use the right words for my audience.  I try to avoid Canadian idioms and use Aussie ones.  However, I’m quite sure that I still have a long way to go in minimizing linguistic distractions when I preach and teach.


Stop Caring So Much?

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It’s synod year for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Synod Meppel 2017 is underway and it will prove to be a cross-roads for the RCN — will they adopt women in office?  Better:  will it become the official stance of the RCN?  After all, it is already being done.  If the RCN does go in that direction, Synod 2018 of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) is likely to terminate our sister-church relationship with the RCN.  Like many others, I’m watching and praying.

As I’ve been watching recently, a Supplementary Report from their Deputies for Relations with Foreign Churches (BBK) appeared on the official RCN website.  Before I get to this report, some background is in order.  At Synod Baldivis in 2015, the FRCA decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel of the RCN, explaining their decisions (see here for a summary) and warning the RCN once again.  Synod Baldivis also decided to send this letter to all the local churches of the RCN.  At Synod Dunnville in 2016, the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) also decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel.  Synod Dunnville also decided to forward a copy of its decisions on the RCN (see here for a summary) to all the local churches of the RCN.

Now to the Supplementary Report of the BBK (see here for the original — it’s only in Dutch, sorry!)  As far as I can tell, this report appeared on the RCN website on February 10, 2017.  The report proposes three decisions to Synod Meppel.

The first is that any letter written to Synod Meppel from foreign sister churches with objections be answered with a letter hand-delivered by some members of the Synod plus deputies from the BBK.  So, for example, a response to the FRCA would be delivered in person to Synod Bunbury 2018 by a delegation from Synod Meppel and deputies from BBK.  The grounds note that it’s always better to meet in person — it’s respectful when there are tensions, and it shows serious commitment and good will.  In itself, that’s not a bad thing to propose.  One might wonder whether members of Synod Meppel can actually speak on behalf of a body that no longer exists, but perhaps there’s some new Dutch church polity behind that.

The second decision proposed has to do with the CanRC.  Specifically, the BBK wants to propose that Synod Meppel express its disapproval of the decision of Synod Dunnville to send correspondence to the local churches of the RCN.  The BBK argues that this is interfering in the private life of a sister church.  Moreover, it borders on agitating or inciting the local churches of the RCN.

The third decision is similar and pertains to the FRCA.  Again, Synod Meppel is presented with a proposal to express disapproval at the actions of a sister church.  Specifically, it’s the decision of Synod Baldivis to send a letter to the local churches of the RCN.  However, in their view, the FRCA went further and actually agitated or incited the local churches by sending a cover letter which urged them to take action.  In this regard, the FRCA went beyond what the CanRC did.  The CanRC merely bordered on agitating amongst the local RCNs — the FRCA went over the line.  With both the CanRC and FRCA, the understanding of the BBK appears to be that the only proper way to address the RCN is through the BBK.

I’ll offer some commentary on this.  I have several points:

  1. Why did it take until February of 2017 for the BBK to issue a report about what they perceive as objectionable behaviour from the CanRC and FRCA?
  2. There are rules for ecclesiastical fellowship.  The CanRC rules can be found here.   The FRCA rules can be found here (on page 72).  Nowhere do any of these rules state that a sister church federation is forbidden from contacting the local churches of another federation.   It’s probably never been done before, but that says something about the unusual circumstance in which we find ourselves — see my next point.
  3. I get the sense that the BBK still does not understand the gravity of the situation.  Both the CanRC and FRCA are deeply concerned about the RCN.  It’s out of that deep concern that these actions were taken.  They speak of inciting or agitating amongst the local churches — if we really felt strongly that this was a matter of ultimate importance, why wouldn’t we do that?  Wouldn’t you expect a sister church federation to do everything in its power to warn our beloved brothers and sisters in the Netherlands if they were on the wrong track?  It would be cold and heartless for us to do otherwise.  Perhaps to do otherwise would be very bureaucratically proper, but it would not be Christian.  In that regard, the two proposed decisions about the CanRC and FRCA in this report are confusing.  It’s as if they want us to stop caring so much.  Brothers, you’re asking the impossible.  We don’t let go that easily.
  4. For myself, I hope and pray that these CanRC and FRCA letters did incite local churches to action.  I pray that faithful consistories rose to the occasion and wrote to Synod Meppel to indicate their grave concern about the efforts to officially endorse women in office, and other matters.  I pray that all the delegates to Synod Meppel read these CanRC and FRCA letters too, and will take action, not only to preserve the RCN’s relationship with Canada and Australia, but most importantly to honour what God has revealed in the inerrant Scriptures.

Absurdity

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question that I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question that I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says that we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says that we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) that they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


The Shack

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I try to stay positive and focus on what’s encouraging.  However, from time to time clear warnings need to be sounded about dangerous teachings.  I am not one to use the word heresy lightly (see here for why), but when it comes to The Shack, it is completely appropriate.  I read the book when it first came out in about 2007.  People from my church community were reading it and raving about it.  An uncle passed me a copy and asked me to read and review it.  It was appalling.  Not only was it really bad literature, it was even worse theology.  This led my co-pastor and I to write a warning for our congregation regarding the book.  This was published in our bulletin.  Now there’s a movie being released on March 3.  In view of that, I think it’s worthwhile to republish the warning that the Langley CanRC co-pastors issued in  2008 regarding the book.  Today, I would just add that portraying God in any way, let alone with female actresses portraying the Father and the Holy Spirit, is a violation of the Second Commandment.  As the Heidelberg Catechism says it in Lord’s Day 35, “We are not to make an image of God in any way…God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way.”

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From the Pastors

In a recent edition of BC Christian News, there was a front-page article promoting a novel by William P. Young, The Shack.  It appears that this book is quite popular in broader Christian circles and has been making the rounds in our own circles as well.  As pastors who care for the flock, we must be honest with you:  this book is full of dangerous, erroneous teachings about God.  It contains a perversion of the gospel.

This is one of those books were someone meets with God in person.  In this case, two persons of the Trinity are represented as women.  “Papa” is a large African-American woman.  The Spirit is Sarayu, an Asian woman (Sarayu is a river in India invoked and venerated by Hindus).  Jesus is represented as a Middle-Eastern man.  However, there is also Sophia, an off-shoot of Sarayu.  This book revives ancient heresies regarding the Trinity.  One of those heresies is patripassionism, the teaching that the Father suffered with the Son on the cross.  Another false teaching is found when “Papa” says, “I am truly human, in Jesus, but I am a totally separate other in my nature.” (p.201).  God the Father did not become human in Jesus.  That is the sort of mixing of the persons that the Athanasian Creed stands against.  Next, we might also point out that the “God” of The Shack does not send people to hell – he/she has no concept of justice or wrath.  Consequently, the grace offered in this book is cheap.  Finally, the novel is explicitly Arminian (or Pelagian, which is even worse) throughout.  For example, Young promotes unbiblical notions about the freedom of the human will.  We also find the false teaching that the atonement of Christ was intended to save all (and going one step further, does in fact, save all).  On page 225, we read “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sin against me, but only some choose relationship.”  All these erroneous teachings are not incidental to the book but pervade it – and we could add several more.

Some have argued that this book is a work of fiction, that it is allegorical and is not meant to be taken literally.  However, when the author was recently at Regent College for a book talk, it became very clear that William P. Young is not an orthodox Christian and his book was not written to convey orthodox Christian theology, but rather the opposite.  Brothers and sisters, because the gospel is at stake, we are obligated to warn you:  please do not waste your time and money on books such as this and please do not encourage others to read it.

You can also find a full review of this book at this helpful website.

Rev. George VanPopta has also reviewed The Shack here.