Tag Archives: Zacharias Ursinus

Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


Homosexuality, the Bible, 1946 and all that

I’m just going to say it, no holds barred:  one of the shallowest objections to traditional Christian sexual ethics is that “the Bible didn’t even use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.”  I’m gobsmacked that people actually get taken in by this special sort of tomfoolery.  I know a lot has been written on this canard already, but it can only aid the cause of truth to get one more voice sharing the facts.

Here’s the thing:  it doesn’t matter that the Bible didn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.  The point is completely irrelevant.  Let me illustrate with other phenomena.  Consider:

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘evolution.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about Darwinian macro-evolution?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘transgender.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about the transgender ideology?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘racism.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about that?

Christians understand that the Bible’s relevance is not bound up with the use of an exact word.  It would be juvenile to take a word designating a topic (any topic), check an online concordance and, failing to find the word mentioned, conclude that the Bible has nothing to say on that topic.  The classic example is the Trinity.  Imagine someone checking a concordance for any mention of the word ‘Trinity’ in the Bible and, not finding it there, concluding that the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible.  No, the word isn’t there, but the concept or doctrine certainly is.  Christians realize that, to do the Bible justice, we have to take the totality of its witness — that goes far beyond the usage of individual words.

Language is always in flux.  During our family worship, we take turns reading from the Bible.  My wife and kids read from the ESV while I read from the KJV.  I’m always surprised at how words change over the centuries.  For example, the KJV uses the word ‘corn’ in several places.  When we think of ‘corn,’ we think of the crop developed from maize.  It’s a New World crop — it didn’t grow in Israel in biblical times.  However, the KJV simply used the word ‘corn’ to describe any type of grain.  The English language has changed and Bible translations change with it.  Today there’s no corn in modern English translations.

While language changes, biblical truth does not.  Bible-believing Christians didn’t suddenly start seeing homosexuality as a problem in 1946.  Nor did Bible-believing Christians wake up one morning in 1946 and decide that they needed to have a Bible translation that supported their views.  History matters and history testifies that Bible-believing Christians have consistently maintained that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Let me give two examples to illustrate.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1563 for the teaching of children in the German-speaking region known as the Palatinate.  Lord’s Day 41 deals with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Someone might read Lord’s Day 41 and note that it makes no mention of homosexuality.  But you shouldn’t conclude that Reformed churches therefore have no problem with homosexuality.  Answer 109 says that God “forbids all unchaste acts.”  One of the biblical proof-texts is 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, a passage which has traditionally been understood to refer, in part, to homosexual behaviour.  Zacharias Ursinus was the main author of the Catechism and he wrote a commentary on it — actually lectures to his seminary students.  While the Catechism addressed to children understandably avoids this subject, his commentary definitely discusses homosexuality.  He speaks of it as being “contrary to nature.”  Homosexuality, according to Ursinus, is a heinous sin and an abominable transgression.  True, he doesn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ — he couldn’t because it didn’t exist yet!  Nevertheless, the concept is there.

You can see the exact same thing in John Calvin’s commentary on Romans 1:26-27.  Again, Calvin doesn’t use the word ‘homosexual’ and neither should you expect him to.   Yet he still speaks of “the dreadful crime of unnatural lust” and of a “filthiness which even brute beasts abhor.”  Calvin found what we call ‘homosexuality’ to be contrary to God’s will, even though he didn’t use the word itself.  Were he alive today, he would no doubt find it ludicrous that some would argue that the Bible has anything other than condemnation for such things.

What Christians need to learn today is another important word:  revisionism.  In an effort to make homosexuality acceptable to Christians, progressive sorts are constantly trying to revise our theology and history.  This revisionism ought to be self-evidently anti-biblical.  In other words, it isn’t true to the Scriptures.  However, it can appeal to those who, for whatever reason, wish for a happy union between Christianity and homosexuality.  It appeals to those who think:  “Wouldn’t it be nice if our Christianity wasn’t so counter-cultural?”  Yet:  let no one join together what God has put asunder.


Absurdity

Praying hands

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question 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 we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says 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) 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.


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (2)

Gisbertus_Voetius

In the first part (see here), I began to make the case that Reformed scholasticism should not be dismissed out of hand.  In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for this method and the theology which it produced.  Last time, I mentioned five things where I’ve personally appreciated Reformed scholasticism:

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis
  2. History Matters
  3. System Matters
  4. Asking Good Questions
  5. Using Precise Definitions

Today I’ll conclude with the last five things:

6. Making Distinctions

Distinguishing between different doctrines and their elements is a key marker of faithful theology.  Scripture teaches us to distinguish.  Moreover, the Christian Church has long recognized that he who would teach well must distinguish well.  Reformed scholasticism excelled at the science of theological distinctions.  Reformed scholastic theologians made good distinctions at the broadest levels.  For example, Ursinus wrote in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.”  But they also made far finer distinctions.  Benedict Pictet, for instance, wrote about the ways in which ought to think of God’s love.  God’s love can be distinguished into the love amongst the persons of the Trinity (ad intra), and then his love towards creatures (ad extra).  With regard to his love for his creatures, that is further distinguished:  “1) God’s universal love for all things, 2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and 3) God’s special love for his people.” (Mark Jones, Antinomianism, 83).  Backed up by scriptural teaching, such distinctions can be quite useful for clear and unmuddled theology.

7. The Value of Logic and Analytical Rigour

Good theologians use logic to advance the truth claims of God’s Word.  Our Reformed confessions do the same.  However, we find this tool used most effectively by Reformed scholastics.  A classic example is found with John Owen’s argument regarding the intent of Christ’s atonement.  Using a powerful syllogism informed by biblical exegesis, Owen made an airtight case for definite atonement, i.e. the biblical position that Christ died only for the elect.  Closely related to the use of logic is rigorous analysis.  Reformed scholastics understood how to get at every angle of a particular topic.  In his Syntagma, Amandus Polanus illustrated this when he discussed the doctrine of creation.  Using the biblical data, he discussed the efficient, material and formal causes of creation, as well as the purpose and effects of creation.  At the end of the discussion, you get the impression that every conceivable aspect has been covered thoroughly.

8. The Need for Polemical Engagement

As in our day, Reformed scholastics encountered challenges to the faith.  Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians (Remonstrants), and others needed to be addressed.  It was not enough simply to make positive statements of the faith – errors also needed to be soundly addressed.  Therefore, in most scholastic works, you will find polemical engagement to varying degrees.  Many works from this period are exclusively devoted to polemics.  For instance, Samuel Maresius took up his pen against Isaac La Peyrère and his arguments for pre-Adamites.  Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was written with the idea that theology is best learned in the context of polemics – “Elenctic” in the title is derived from a Greek word which means “reprove or correct.”  The Reformed scholastics were not afraid to not only defend the faith, but also go on the offensive for it.  Many in our tender age might learn something from them!

9. Room for Theological Diversity (Within Confessional Bounds)

No one should have the impression that Reformed scholasticism was a monolithic movement.  Yes, it may be fairly argued that there were many key doctrines on which there was a broad consensus.  That consensus was defined primarily by the Reformed confessions.  However, within those bounds, one can certainly find a significant amount of diversity.  For example, there is the question of whether every individual believer has a guardian angel.  This question is not addressed in the Three Forms of Unity.  A Reformed scholastic like Gisbertus Voetius followed the lead of John Calvin and others in regarding guardian angels as, at best, uncertain.  However, Voetius also mentioned that other Reformed scholastic theologians such as Zanchius, Alsted, and Chamier affirmed the ancient position on guardian angels.  Can both views co-exist amongst Reformed theologians?  Why not?

10. There is a Time and Place for Scholarship

The best Reformed scholastics understood one of the most important distinctions:  between the pulpit and the lectern, or between the book written for the average church-goer and the book written for theology students or fellow theologians.  Put more technically, they knew the difference between popular and academic.  To be sure, not all Reformed scholastics did understand or employ this distinction, but the best did.  Consider Gisbertus Voetius again.  He was one of the most accomplished of the Reformed scholastics.  His academic writings reflect his great learning, breadth of study, and scholarly abilities.  Yet, this same Voetius wrote a warmly pastoral book entitled (in the English translation) Spiritual Desertion.  Before serving as a theology professor, Voetius had been a pastor and he understood that there was a time and place for the scholastic method.  The pulpit was not that place and neither was a book written in Dutch for ordinary church members.  To communicate effectively at the level of the regular person while at the same time being able to theologize with the best theologians – this is something that most Reformed scholastics strived to attain.  It’s something to aim for today as well.


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.

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