Tag Archives: Heidelberg Catechism

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)


Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.

Endorsements

“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

YOU CAN PURCHASE THIS BOOK HERE


Book Review: Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds

9781596384651-Meade-Comforting-hearts-teaching-minds

Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds:  Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism, Starr Meade, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2013.  Paperback, $16.09, 255 pages.

For many Reformed parents, the catechizing of their children begins and ends with catechism classes taught by the church.  This is despite the fact that the third baptismal question is very clear.  Parents first of all promise that they will instruct their children in the “complete doctrine of salvation” as soon as those children are able to understand.  The catechism teaching done by the church is not meant to replace this parental catechism teaching, but to complement or supplement it.  But how do we implement parental catechism instruction in the home?  That’s where a book like this promises to be very helpful.

The same author wrote a similar book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.   Our family used this book profitably for several years and by the time we were done with it, it was falling apart.  Our experiences with the previous volume led me to have high hopes for this one as a replacement.  After a few months of using it in our family worship, I can report that, overall, it is a worthwhile tool.  However, discernment is needed on some important points.

A week of devotions (Monday-Saturday) is spent on each Lord’s Day of the Catechism.  Occasionally a Lord’s Day will be spread over two weeks.  Each day features a short devotional that can be read in less than five minutes.  The devotionals also include one or more readings from the Bible to show the connection between the Catechism and Scripture.  The devotionals are well-written and often include vivid illustrations.  Most of the teaching given in these devotionals is faithful to the Reformed faith.  While even preschool children can benefit from these devotionals, those benefitting the most will be school age.

Unfortunately, I do have to share two significant criticisms.  I share them in the hope that parents who want to use this book will use it with discernment.  First, parents should be aware that Meade uses the edition of the Heidelberg Catechism adopted by the Christian Reformed Church.  This has a couple of regrettable drawbacks.  First, we want our children to learn the Catechism as adopted by our churches.  This means that parents should keep the Book of Praise at hand and read the Catechism in the Canadian Reformed edition, rather than the text as printed in this book.  The second drawback is more significant.  The CRC edition of the Catechism dropped QA 80 about the Roman Catholic mass.  Meade follows the CRC lead and even states in a footnote, “There has been concern among those who use this catechism that the position of the Roman Catholic Church may not be stated accurately.  Therefore, I have chosen to omit Question 80 altogether” (160).  If Meade had only done some research, she would have discovered that this “concern” was only among some and actually said far more about the CRC than about the Catechism and its portrayal of Rome.  This puts Canadian Reformed parents who use this book in the position of having to teach QA 80 on their own – and they should.

My second criticism has to do with Lord’s Day 27 and infant baptism.  According to the author’s website, she and her husband teach a Sunday School class at a Reformed Baptist church in Arizona.  I would assume that they are also members at this church.  This puts the author in an awkward position when it comes to Lord’s Day 27.  This was not an issue in the previous book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which also teaches infant baptism).  It seems to me that the author may have changed her views on this between the two books.  When it comes to Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds, the author is very brief on infant baptism and does not teach it or defend it.  All she does is note that there are differences amongst Christians on this question and encourages families to discuss where they and their church stand on it.  This is not faithful to the intent of the Catechism.  The Catechism was written to teach the Reformed faith and that faith includes the truth that the children of believers belong to God’s covenant and therefore should receive holy baptism.  This is the whole point of QA 74!  Unfortunately, Meade’s Baptist bias comes out elsewhere in her treatment of the sacraments as well.  For instance, in the Friday devotion on Lord’s Day 25, she writes, “Baptism is a sign used once, when we first come to Christ.”  While baptism certainly is a sign to be used only once, there’s no recognition that it’s to be used when Christ first comes to us – and that could be (and often is) as a little covenant baby.  Reformed parents who use this book will have to be cautious about this and intentional about filling out the gaps in Meade’s approach.

We need more books like this, tools to help us catechize our children as we promised to do.  We need books like this written by men and women who share a wholehearted commitment to the Reformed faith – with no reservations about any points of doctrine.  While I believe this book could be used with profit (and we certainly are profiting in our home), it should only be seen as a stop-gap measure until something better comes along.


Heidelberg Catechism Themes and Divisions Version 2.0

One of the most popular pages on Yinkahdinay is this resource with themes and divisions for preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism.  I’m beginning to roll out version 2.0 of this resource.  You can see an example here with Lord’s Day 4.  I’ve added some new themes, but also added the Bible readings where I can.  The update to the new version is going to take some time.  I will generally work on this project as I work my way through the Catechism in my own preaching, so please be patient.  I hope this resource can continue to be helpful for my colleagues and others who are called to teach or preach the Catechism.