Monday, December 6, 2010

On Keeping Christ Out of Christmas

An essential doctrine of Reformed Christian worship is a derivative of the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura called the Regulative Principle. Simply put, the Regulative Principle teaches that God alone has the right to institute the acceptable way of worship. We find this doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 which reads, "The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture."

The basic thought is this: Worship is fundamentally prostration before God. In worship we seek to be submitted to God's holy word, receiving the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as our blessedness and reward in accordance with his covenant of grace. But being submitted to God in worship not only includes submission with regard to what and who we worship but also with regard to how we worship. In other words, worshipping God in a way he has not prescribed is tantamount to worshipping a false God. Or put another way, worship that is not regulated by God cannot be worship that is glorifying to God. It is what the framers of the confession called "will worship," since the human will is exalted to a position of authority over God.

Just as God himself is set apart as the only acceptable object of worship, so also God has set apart peculiar means, a peculiar manner, and a particular time for his worship. We see these aspects of worship in the first table of the moral law (i.e. The Ten Commandments, Ex. 20, Deut. 5):

1. OBJECT set apart for worship. You shall have no other God's before me.
2. MEANS set apart for worship. You shall not make any graven images.
3. MANNER set apart for worship. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4. TIME set apart for worship. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.

These basic principles are rooted in the character of God. They are unchanging. They are revealed to us for his glory and our good.

With repect to the when of worship, in Old Testament times God prescribed the weekly sabbath day (i.e. the fourth commandment) along with other holy days. The fourth commandment is essentially moral, prescribing the one-day-in-seven Sabbath. But it also has a ceremonial aspect, namely the prescription of Saturday. In New Testament times the ceremonial law has been abrogated, and the ceremonial aspect of the fourth commandment has changed from Saturday to Sunday. But the moral essence of the fourth commandment (i.e. one day in seven) continues forever. The Christian Sabbath, Sunday, the Lord's Day, is the only day set apart as holy in the New testament era. God has graciously given his church this day alone for regular public worship. Public worship on any other day, which is certainly permissible, should be extraordinary, irregular. In other words, the Christian calendar is a weekly calendar--six days you shall work and one day you shall rest. It is not yearly (or beyond) as in Old Testament times.

So, with respect to Christmas (Christ-mass), the problem is not that Christ is being taken out of Christmas as is often suggested. The problem is that he was never there to begin with. It's not taking Christ out of Christmas that troubles me; it's putting him in it.

I think it's great for families, schools, workplaces, and nations to set apart times in which people can come together, exchange gifts, and feast. I do things like that with my family and others every year for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I also think its fine for churches to meet irregularly for public worship on days other than Sunday. But we should be very careful not to presume to be more wise than God when it comes to observing holy days. We shouldn't presume that any day or season has religious significance if God has not given it such. God alone has authority to set apart days as holy, and he has not seen fit to do that with any day but the weekly sabbath since the coming of Christ.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Should Christians Keep the Fourth Commandment?

In a word: YES!

Justin Taylor posted an excerpt from Dr. Tom Schreiner's forthcoming book 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law on whether keeping the fourth commandment (i.e. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," Ex. 20:8) is required for New Testament Christians. Dr. R. Scott Clark responded by pointing out the fundamental hermeneutical/confessional assumptions that have historically separated the baptists from the Reformed on this and other issues (like baptism). Nick Batzig responded by posting part of Francis Turretin's excellent section on the fourth commandment. What follows are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Each year I pick a topic as an emphasis for private study. Last year, sparked by reading Dr. R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice and having recognized the need during my ordination exams, I chose to study Reformed worship. That immediately led me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW states that "the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). In other words, in order for worship to be acceptable, it must be regulated by God's word. God should only be worshiped in the way that he has prescribed. No other worship is acceptable.

As you can see, the RPW cannot be properly understood without distinguishing worship from the rest of life, that which is sacred from that which is common. Otherwise we could only do what the Bible prescribes in all areas of life, which is neither taught in Scripture nor practically possible. This distinction between the sacred and the common led me quite naturally, so to speak, to a study of the Sabbath. If a particular action is set apart by God as sacred (i.e. worship), why not also a particular time (i.e. the Sabbath day)?

My first serious exposure to the doctrine of the Sabbath came by way of R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession. Next I read, Dr. Richard Gaffin's excellent article "Westminster and the Sabbath," which may be found in the first volume of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century edited by Ligon Duncan. From there I read Dr. Gaffin's excellent master's thesis on Calvin and the Sabbath: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment. Then I turned to Dr. Iain Campbell's On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath, followed immediately by Dr. Joseph Pipa's The Lord's Day. Next I read The Westminster Directory of Public Worship and Dr. Jon Payne's excellent book In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century, which includes an appendix on the Sabbath. I also read some excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, which helped me to see the vital connection between the first table of the moral law and the Reformed worship/sabbath doctrine. Next my friend Nick Batzig introduced me to Francis Turretin on the fourth commandment. Finally, I read Lane Keister's "The Sabbath Day and Recreations on the Sabbath: An Examination of the Sabbath and the Biblical Basis for the 'No Recreation' Clause in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 and Westminster Larger Catechism 117" published in volume 5 (2009) of The Confessional Presbyterian.

I am so thankful for all these works on the Sabbath. Each author has his own emphases and ways of arguing that have helped me tremendously. But Francis Turretin has shown me the source of the confusion surrounding the fourth commandment better than anyone else: The fourth commandment is essentially moral, but it includes a ceremonial aspect. The essence of the commandment is "one day in seven." The ceremonial aspect is the particular day, whether Saturday or Sunday.

Here's why this is the source of confusion regarding the Sabbath:

  1. If one understands the fourth commandment as wholly ceremonial, he will believe it was abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the typical baptist view, which Schreiner holds. One major problem with this view is that the ten commandments become nine.
  2. On the other hand, if one understands the fourth commandment as wholly moral, he will be a seventh-day adventist. The problems with this view should be obvious.
  3. But if one understands the fourth commandment as essentially moral with a ceremonial aspect he will believe that the moral essence continues to be binding forever, while the ceremonial aspects were abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the Reformed view.

Only the ceremonial aspect (e.g. Saturday observance) of the commandment was abrogated with the coming of Christ, along with all the ceremonial law. This is what Paul argues against in Col. 2:16-20, Rom. 14:5-6, and Gal. 4:9-11. But the moral essence of the commandment remains. In the New Testament this law is no longer applied on the last day of the week but on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), the day of Christ's resurrection (Jn. 20:1), the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10).

Dr. Schreiner's view represents the most popular view in the U.S. today. It is the view I was taught in the baptist churches in which I grew up. It is also the view adopted by the neo-Calvinists that Collin Hansen has labeled "young, restless, and reformed" (YRR). I love my YRR brothers, so I'm happy to share this piece of good news from the Reformed confession: You need not be restless! God has appointed one day in seven for a holy rest. Obey him for your good and his glory.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rule and Norm of Every Doctrine

"While [pagan philosophy] proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed implications as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such license, namely, of affirming whatever we please. For we make Sacred Scripture the rule and the norm of every doctrine. Upon that we are obliged to fix our eyes, and we approve only whatever can be brought into harmony with the intent of these writings"--Gregory of Nyssa, ca. 350 A.D. (quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 50, emphasis added).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Doth It Appear that the Scriptures are the Word of God?

The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.4).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Francis Turretin: On the Difference between the Natural Law and the Decalogue

Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology was THE text used to train generations of Presbyterian and Reformed pastors from the late 17th through the mid-19th centuries. He is a prime example of what Richard Muller has categorized as the "high orthodoxy" period (ca. 1640-1685-1725) of Protestant scholasticism (see Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1 Prolegomena to Theology). Last year, as I studied the doctrine of the Sabbath, a friend recommended him. Turretin was most helpful, giving me precise categories with which to properly understand the biblical doctrine of the fourth commandment. Just the other day another friend encouraged me to read Turretin on the law of God. I began last night. Turretin's biblical insight and well-reasoned precision are wonderful. Here's what he has to say about the difference between the natural law and the decalogue:

If it is asked how this natural law agrees with or differs from the moral law, the answer is easy. It agrees as to substance and with regard to principles, but differs as to accidents and with regard to conclusions. The same duties (both toward God and toward our neighbor) prescribed by the moral law are also contained in the natural law. The difference is with regard to the mode of delivery. In the moral law, these duties are clearly, distinctly and fully declared; while in the natural law they are obscurely and imperfectly declared both because many intimations have been lost and obliterated by sin and because it has been variously corrupted by the vanity and wickedness of men (Rom. 1:20-22). Not to mention other differences: as that the natural law was engraven upon the hearts of men, the moral on stony tables; the former pertains to all universally, the latter only to those called by the word; the former contains nothing except morality, the latter has also certain ceremonials mingled in it.

Hence is easily gathered the reason why God wished to recall that law by Moses, to deliver it to his people viva voce, and proclaimed it in a solemn manner, committing it to writing and comprehending it in the decalogue. For although in upright nature there was no need of such promulgation, still (after sin) so great was the blindness of mind, such the perversity of will and disturbance of the affections that only remains of this law survived in the hearts of all (like rubbed pictures of the same, which on that account ought to be retouched by the voice and hand of God as by a new brush) (11.1.22-23a).

I'm sad to report that I've not read much Turretin. But I plan to remedy that soon.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sola Scriptura and Epistemological Religious Certainty

Recently I was asked by a Roman Catholic friend how I could escape Liberal and Unitarian arguments with sola Scriptura? I thought that was an excellent question! Here is my answer:

Both Liberalism and Unitarianism deny sola Scriptura by denying the sufficiency of Scripture, which is essential to a proper understanding of sola Scriptura. In other words, we may place both aberrations on the poles of a continuum defined by Scriptural sufficiency.

On one end is the denial of Scriptural sufficiency due to the denial that Scripture is our only infallible rule in matters of faith and practice (i.e. Liberalism). In this theory other authorities are accepted as infallible. In other words, Scriptural authority is supplemented with something else.

On the other end is a denial of Scriptural sufficiency due to the denial that Scripture was/is sufficient as our only infallible rule in matters of faith and practice in the same way over time (i.e. Unitarianism). In other words, the sufficiency of Scripture is denied for past generations of interpreters, completely undermining the authority of tradition (unless of course they were Unitarian!). This is sometimes referred to as solo Scriptura as opposed to sola Scriptura.

Of course there will always be difficulties with respect to the unity of the church. The question is not whether sinners will have difficulty confessing and living according to the truth of God's self-revelation. That is a given. Roman Catholics and Reformed catholics just resolve that tension differently.

Roman Catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic office (i.e. the Roman see). Reformed catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic teaching (i.e. the completed canon of Scripture).

Either way, at the end of the day Roman Catholics and Reformed catholics are trusting in someone else. We are slaves in need of a good master.

Roman Catholics have found that master in the Apostolic office, which they trust continues to the end of the age. Reformed catholics, on the other hand, have found that master in the God-breathed Apostolic teaching, the foundation of the church completed during the time of the Apostles (Matt. 16:18; 18:18; Eph. 2:20; Jude 3).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should Christians Observe the Passover?

In my brief interaction with a few Christian fathers and brothers regarding this question I have concluded that New Testament (NT) Christians should not return to the Old Testament (OT) observance of Passover. My primary reason is this: I believe the observance of a distinctly OT worship service (i.e. seder) is a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith as worshiping God in “any way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (21.1).

Primary Argument:

  1. OT ordinances, though essentially similar to NT ordinances as signs and seals of the one covenant of grace (WCF 27.1 and 27.5), are nonetheless properly distinguished from NT ordinances (WCF, 7.5 and 7.6).
  2. The Passover (like circumcision) was prescribed as an ordinance of OT worship (spoken of in WCF 7.5 as “the paschal lamb”).
  3. The Passover was abrogated and replaced by the Lord's Supper in the NT.
  4. Therefore, the Passover is not a proper ordinance of NT worship.

  • Secondary Argument:

    1. The contemporary Passover Seder largely includes additions/stipulations (e.g. the afikoman) which are not prescribed in the OT but were added during the intertestamental and post second-temple eras of Jewish history.
    2. Therefore the contemporary Passover Seder is not prescribed by God as a proper way of OT or NT worship.

  • Possible Objection:

  • The NT church should observe the Passover Seder as a tutorial.

    This objection fails in at least four respects: (1) It assumes a non sequitur, (2) It is self-defeating, (3) It succumbs to a reductio ad absurdum, and (4) If the Passover includes the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it is a worship service de facto.

    1. It assumes a non sequitur. The assumption is that observing the ritual is a way of gaining insights that simple teaching cannot afford. In other words, in order to gain a rich understanding of the ritual, one should observe it. This is not true. We could accomplish the same goal by offering a class on the significance of the Passover ritual without observing it.

    2. It is self-defeating. This is true in three ways: (a) Defining characteristics of the Passover are implicitly denied, (b) The function of the Passover is implicitly denied, (c) The fulfillment of the Passover is implicitly denied.

    a. A defining characteristic of the Passover is that it was a worship service. Therefore, to observe it as a simple tutorial is to redefine the thing itself (i.e. to change a defining characteristic of it). One may be observing something, but if it is not understood to be worship, it cannot be a biblical Passover. This same argument can also be seen in a typical limitation of the observance among Christians. To my knowledge Passover Seders observed by Christians do not typically include the slaughtering, roasting, and eating of a paschal lamb. The paschal lamb is a defining characteristic of the Passover. Again, one may be observing something, but if the slaughtering of a paschal lamb is not involved, it is not a biblical Passover. Either Passover is a worship service, which means it is not merely a tutorial and therefore is not allowed, or it is a tutorial, in which case it is not worship and is not therefore a proper observance.

    b. One function of the Passover was to foresignify the first advent of Christ. Since Christ has already come, the ordinance cannot now fulfill its function of foresignification. Therefore, any observance of the Passover after Christ’s coming is an attempt to have the ordinance function in a way in which it was not designed, which is an implicit denial of its design.

    c. Because the Passover was a foresignification of a particular end (i.e. the coming of Christ), to continue its observance today is an implicit denial of that end. As the author of Hebrews says, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:18-19, 22-24).

    3. It succumbs to a reductio ad absurdum, namely, if we are willing to observe the Passover ritual in order to understand how it foresignified Christ, why not observe all the rituals since they also foresignified Christ (WCF 7.5)? Why would we not be willing to perform a service of circumcision or sacrifice in order to learn about how they foresignified Christ?

    4. If the Passover observance includes the observance of the Lord’s Supper, which is sometimes practiced along with contemporary Passover Seders among Christians, it is a worship service de facto. The Westminster divines understood that the only proper ordinary occasion for observing the sacraments is public worship. This is evident in that private masses are forbidden and only a minister of the Word lawfully ordained may dispense them with the appropriate words of institution. The only exceptions are extraordinary cases in which a communing church member cannot attend the ordinary public worship service. Nonetheless, even then, multiple officers and congregants should be present in order to constitute public worship.

    Chief Concerns

    Notwithstanding the violation of the RPW, which our tradition understands to be the idolatry of will-worship, I have three chief concerns about Christians observing Passover, each of which strikes at the basis of the very being of the visible church (i.e. Word and Sacrament). Those concerns are: (1) The sufficiency (i.e. fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy) of the Lord’s Supper is implicitly denied, (2) The sufficiency (i.e. fullness and clarity) of the revelation of God in the person of Christ is implicitly denied, and (3) The sufficiency (i.e. value and efficacy) of the work of Christ is implicitly denied.

    1. The sufficiency (i.e. fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy) of the Lord’s Supper is implicitly denied. To observe an OT ordinance, which has been abrogated and replaced by a NT ordinance, is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of the NT ordinance that has replaced it, which, although “administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in [it], [the covenant] is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles”(WCF 7.6).
    2. The sufficiency (i.e. fullness and clarity) of the revelation of God in the person of Christ is implicitly denied. To turn back to that which was but a shadow of the substance is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of the substance.
    3. The sufficiency (i.e. value and efficacy) of the work of Christ is implicitly denied. To observe an OT ordinance, which is a blood-letting ritual, implicitly undermines the value and efficacy of the blood of the Lamb of God, which was spilled with absolute finality at the cross.

    Given the above argument, it is my recommendation that Passover Seders should not be observed by the NT church. Nonetheless, the Passover along with all OT worship practices should be explained and understood in light of the Christ they foresignified.