Tag Archives: Zacharias Ursinus

We Distinguish: Elements/Circumstances

Many moons ago, in the days of Pine, Lynx and dial-up modems, there was an online discussion group known as Ref-net.  I can’t say I was among the first participants of this e-mail forum, but I’m quite sure I got in while it was still made up mostly of Canadian Reformed university students.  We were exploring what it means to be Reformed Christians in cyberspace.  All sorts of ideas were up for debate, including public worship.

Through the Ref-net I met a friend from South Africa who introduced me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Though it was right there in the Three Forms of Unity, I had never really noticed it before.  Its presence is clearest in Heidelberg Catechism Answer 96, “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  This is one of the rudiments and distinctives of Reformed worship.

I became involved in a number of discussions about Reformed worship on the Ref-net.  These ranged from general wrangling about the RPW as such to specific polemics on applications of the RPW to questions like psalm-singing and “days of commemoration.”  One of the objections I heard to the RPW in general was that it was impractical.  If we’re to worship God only as he has commanded, then where has God commanded us to worship at 9:30 AM?  Why do we sit in pews when God hasn’t commanded that?  In these and many other ways, no Reformed or Presbyterian church really follows the RPW.  To the lurkers it must have appeared as if this objection had just detonated the RPW into oblivion.

However, this gotcha moment didn’t last very long.  It was quickly noted that the RPW comes with an indispensable distinction.  When it comes to public worship, Reformed theologians have often distinguished between elements and circumstances.  Elements are the things God commanded in Scripture for public worship, things like preaching, singing, the reading of Scripture, prayers, etc.  Elements are governed by the RPW.  Circumstances are the incidental things which surround the elements.  Circumstances include things like the time of worship, whether one sits on pews or chairs, what temperature the room will be, and far more.  Circumstances are not governed by commands from the Bible, but by wisdom and discretion informed by the Bible.

It’s true that this distinction doesn’t appear in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Since it was written for children, you shouldn’t expect it to.  But Zacharias Ursinus (the main author of the Catechism) does use this distinction in his theological commentary on the Catechism.  It was also employed by Puritans such as John Owen and Jeremiah Burroughs.  Not surprisingly then, it becomes part of the Reformed confessional heritage in Westminster Confession 1.6, speaking of circumstances in worship “which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”         

The historical pedigree of this distinction is sound, but the most important question is whether it’s biblical.  Certainly in the New Testament we see believers worshipping God in a variety of places – homes, synagogues, and even the temple.  We see believers worshipping God at different times:  evening, late evening, and morning.  This sort of variability observed in Scripture is what undergirds this distinction.  Outside of the elements commanded for worship, God grants liberty to his church to order the circumstances wisely.

This distinction doesn’t instantly solve every question in Reformed worship.  There are disagreements amongst Reformed and Presbyterian liturgists about what constitutes elements and circumstances.  Probably the most well-known example has to do with musical instruments.  Some, such as myself, would contend that musical accompaniment (done judiciously) is circumstantial.  Others would maintain it has the character of an element and, since it is not commanded in the New Testament, it cannot be justified by the RPW.  Note:  both sides fully affirm the RPW.  However, they differ at the application of it, specifically when it comes to defining elements and circumstances.  And no, it’s not a matter of “strict” RPW versus “loose” RPW.  You either hold to the RPW or you don’t. 

While those disagreements can be quite intense at times, we do well to note the broad consensus existing amongst confessionally Reformed churches.  There’s unanimous agreement that things like the time of the worship services and the type of seating are circumstantial.  Whether you worship in a custom-built church building or use a school gymnasium – God-pleasing worship in Spirit and truth can happen regardless.  Conversely, we all agree that what matters are the God-commanded elements.  Without elements like the reading and preaching of Scripture and prayer, you simply don’t have Reformed worship.  You have something less than authentic Christian worship.  Because of our love for the Saviour and what he’s done, we want to follow his Word carefully when it comes to the content of our worship.  But we’ll also be careful about imposing our own opinions where God has granted liberty to be different.

For more on Reformed worship, check out Aiming to Please: a Guide to Reformed Worship.


We Distinguish: Broader/Narrower

It was March of 2001 and I was a newly ordained missionary serving in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  My sending church, the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church, was about 100 km to the south.  For the first couple of years that I served as their missionary, the church was itself vacant.  So, especially in the early days, before we had worship services on the mission field, I preached in Smithers about once a month.  So I found myself preparing my first sermon on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Lord’s Day 3 says that “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness….”  In my sermon, I asked the question whether unregenerate human beings today still bear the image of God.  In other words, are even unbelievers today made in the image of God?  My answer was “No.”  I said, “Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image.  He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master.”  I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t totally right either.

In the following years, as I continued my study of Reformed theology, I came to recognize that the answer I gave in that sermon was far too simplistic.  It didn’t tell the whole story.  It didn’t do justice to all the biblical data.  It neglected an important Reformed theological distinction that comes from the biblical data.

Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his image.  Our Catechism defines this in the words of Ephesians 4:24, “in true righteousness and holiness.”  That could give the impression that “true righteousness and holiness” exhaust what it means to be created in God’s image.  However, one must remember that the Heidelberg Catechism was written for children.  It wasn’t written as a textbook for systematic theology.  Like primers do, our Catechism sometimes leaves us short of the full picture. 

To get a fuller picture, we need to account for the other places in Scripture which mention humanity’s creation in the image of God.  There are several that could be mentioned, but the one that most caught my attention was James 3:9, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The term “likeness of God” is roughly synonymous with “image of God.”  James is appealing back to Genesis 1:26, 27 to argue that if you curse human beings you are cursing God.  This is not because human beings once bore God’s image, but because they still do right now.  All human beings are image-bearers. 

This parallels Genesis 9:6, another striking passage:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”   There the exact language of Genesis 1 is used to argue that if you kill a human being, you are attacking God.  That’s what makes killing a human being so heinous.  That’s what gives every human life its enormous value and dignity.  It’s because all human beings are image-bearers.

So is the image of God in fallen humanity gone or still present?  To resolve this question, Reformed theologians concluded that Scripture must be speaking of the image of God in two distinct senses.  These two senses were eventually labelled “broader” and “narrower” (though other terms have been used).  Herman Bavinck explains:

…Reformed theologians continued to speak of the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense.  In Holy Scripture they read that man, on the one hand, is still called the image of God after the fall and should be respected as such (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9); and that, on the other hand, he had nevertheless lost the primary content of the image of God (i.e. knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) and only regains these qualities in Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.550)

So in the broad sense there are, to use the words of Zacharias Ursinus, “remains and sparks” left of the image of God.  According to Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.31-32) these consist of:

  1. “The incorporeal, rational, and immortal substance of the soul, together with its powers…”
  2. “…many notions and conceptions of God, of nature, and of the distinction which exists between things proper and improper…”
  3. “…traces and remains of moral virtues, and some ability of regulating the external deportment of life.”
  4. “The enjoyment of many temporal blessings.”
  5. “A certain dominion over other creatures.”

Now, as stated by Calvin and others, even these “remains and sparks” have been drastically affected by the fall into sin.  Yet, while corrupted, it can still be said that “God’s image has not been totally annihilated and destroyed” (Institutes 1.15.4).  However, after the fall, the narrow sense of the image of God (or the moral/ethical sense) has been completely lost.  It only begins to be recovered in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now why does all this matter?  First, because this is foundational for a Christian understanding of human worth and dignity.  All human beings have worth and value because there is a sense in which they bear God’s image.  All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity because they’re image-bearers in the broad sense.  From the unborn to the elderly, one and all carry the likeness of their Creator – not in all respects, but those which they do are of enormous value. 

Second, this distinction gives us some direction when it comes to considering the universal love of God.  Like many Reformed folks, I struggled for some years with understanding the love of God for humanity in general.  Can we say that God loves humanity as a whole?  Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian from the 1500s, said “Yes.”  He said that on account of humanity continuing to bear the image of God in the broader sense.  God loves humanity in general because there he still sees his image.  Similarly, John Calvin wrote this remarkable passage:

All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred.  With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.  (Institutes 2.16.3) 

God finds something to love in us by virtue of what remains of his image in us.  God’s love is thus on account of God’s creation.  It all goes back to him.

Come 2006 I was serving my first congregation as a pastor.  I had the opportunity to revise my 2001 sermon on Lord’s Day 3.  I corrected my earlier theological blunders.  As I look at it now, it’s still a flawed sermon in some ways, but at least I was now on the right track concerning the Reformed doctrine of the image of God.  Through this experience God taught me that a preacher has to always keep studying theology.  We can never stop learning – none of us.  Even though we’re created in the image of God (broader), even though we’re being restored to the image of God (narrower) in Christ, we’re still finite creatures whose knowledge and understanding is incomplete.


We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally

Theological distinctions matter.  We need them for sound theology.  That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians.  Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.

The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.   For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood.  We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…”  Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  After all, it seems obvious:  he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father. 

A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion.  But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be.  The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God.  It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit.  The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.”  This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation.  The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity.  He can be called that because he is God.

There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.  He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father.  That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament.  You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?” 

To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture.  Sometimes it is used personally.  In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son.  At other times, “Father” is used essentially.  In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence.  To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context.  Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally.  For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.

This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology.  According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans.  It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59).  When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.


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.