Catechism and the Synod of Dort

This year and next we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort.  The Synod of Dort 1618-19 is remembered most for the Canons of Dort dealing with the Arminian problem.  However, the synod actually discussed and decided on far more matters.  One of the topics discussed was catechetical instruction.

Early on at the synod, there was a significant discussion held on the best way to catechize the youth and others in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Advice was requested from the foreign delegates and many of them obliged. It’s interesting that a number of these foreign delegations wrote about the importance of involving parents in catechesis. For instance, the theologians of Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.” Parents who were nonchalant about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families. Similarly, the theologians of Bremen advised the synod that they recognized three sorts of catechesis: scholastic (i.e., in the schools), ecclesiastical, and domestic. Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.

On Friday November 30, 1618 in its morning session, the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the manner of catechesis. Dort followed Bremen’s division of catechetical duties. The work of parents, however, was put up front. According to Dort, it is the work of parents to instruct their children and the whole family with all diligence in the elements of Christian religion. With an eye to each one’s capacity, parents are to seriously and diligently exhort their families in the fear of God and sincere piety. They are to discuss the sermons and especially the teaching of the Catechism. They are to read the Scriptures and explain them. If parents were not faithful in these duties, they were to be admonished by the pastors, and if necessary reprimanded and censured by the consistory.

It’s unfortunate that parental or domestic catechesis has been lost in so many places. It’s regrettable that many Reformed parents today expect the church to do virtually everything when it comes to the catechesis of covenant youth. The first responsibility lies with parents. Dort was right.


I Believe in Theistic Evolution

My most recent post at Creation Without Compromise.

Creation Without Compromise

I recently realized I believe in/affirm theistic evolution.  Depending on your perspective, have I sold out or have I finally come to my senses?  Neither.  Let me explain.

It has long perturbed me that those who affirm or allow for Darwinian macroevolution to be compatible with a biblical worldview will sometimes call themselves “creationists” or will claim to believe in/affirm biblical creation.  They do this knowing that biblical creation is usually understood to refer to a view that holds to God having created in six ordinary days on a timescale of some thousands (rather than millions or billions) of years ago.  By claiming to believe in creation they lay concerns to rest, whereas all they have really done is disguise their true position.

Stephen C. Meyer has helped me to see I could do the same thing with theistic evolution.  Meyer wrote the “Scientific and Philosophical Introduction” to Theistic Evolution:…

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Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: Sensus divinitatis

English has many Latin roots.  Many Latin expressions can therefore be intuitively decoded without much effort, even apart from a working knowledge of the language.  Sensus divinitatis shouldn’t be too hard to work out as “sense of divinity.”  The idea is sometimes found with a synonymous expression:  semen religionis or “seed of religion.”  The concept behind both is the biblical teaching that all human beings have some sense that God exists.

The key biblical passage is found in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  (Romans 1:18-20)

The Holy Spirit says here that God has shown certain things about himself to all people.  His “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived.”  This obviously includes the awareness of his very existence.  God does not believe in the existence of atheists, and neither should we!

When you encounter someone who claims to be an atheist, you are meeting someone self-deceived.  They have deceived themselves into a position they actually know not to be true.  And according to the Holy Spirit in Romans 1, this is not a person with an intellectual problem, but a moral one.  This suppressing of the truth is done in “unrighteousness.”  It is wicked to have the sensus divinitatis and then not acknowledge the Deity.  It leaves unbelievers “without excuse” — literally without an apologetic, without a reasonable defense for what they’re doing.

This suppression of the sensus divinitatis has been compared to a jack-in-the-box.  For those who have no idea what such a thing is, I’ve included a picture at the top of this post.  “Jack” has to be stuffed down into the box.  “Jack” does not cease to exist.  He is still there, but has been pushed down into the box, out of sight.  Our calling as Christians is to turn the crank, so to speak.  Our calling is to bring the truth out into the open, so that the unbeliever might acknowledge God for who he is, and submit to him with faith and repentance.

The concept of the sensus divinitatis is therefore important for defending and promoting our faith, for apologetics.  At the heart of biblical apologetics is the notion that the unbeliever already knows God is there, but is suppressing that truth in unrighteousness.  The unbeliever is sinfully living in self-deception.  Biblical apologetics equips us with the tools to expose this fantasy world of the unbeliever for what it really is.  Through apologetics, we learn how to demonstrate that, while denying God with their lips, unbelievers show with their lives that they are self-deceived.   To use the words of Proverbs 26:4,5, through apologetics we learn both how to “answer not a fool according to his folly” (to lay out the truth), and to “answer a fool according to his folly” (to expose the foolish fantasy of unbelief).

In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis comments tellingly about his life before acknowledging God:

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions.  I maintained that God did not exist.  I was also very angry with God for not existing.  I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

You see, the sensus divinitatis is real, found not only in the words of Scripture, but also in human experience.  So remember the next time you’re speaking with an unbeliever that not everything is as it seems.  Your unbelieving friend actually knows God to some degree, but wickedly pushes that truth down.  Pray that you can be God’s instrument to pull the truth up and out into the open.


New Liturgical Help

One of the challenges faced by pastors is the organization of public prayer.  I have long used a document for myself, Regular Items for Thanksgiving and Intercessory Prayer.  This document has all the regular things which should be remembered in public prayer on the Lord’s Day — at least the ones I could think of (with the help of my elders).  They are organized into eight groups.  The idea is to pray through one group each Lord’s Day.  I typically do this in the second prayer in the PM service.  Using a system like this helps prevent lengthy “around the world” prayers, as well as the neglect of certain matters.  I’m sharing it as a MS Word file so other pastors can modify it for their own purposes.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.