Saturday, February 21, 2009

0 A Centurion's Faith

After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. (Luke 7:1-10, ESV)
And so goes the story of the Roman Centurion in Luke 7:1-10. It is interesting to see the difference between the assessment of the Jews concerning the worthiness of the centurion to have Jesus heal his servant, and that of the centuiron himself. The Jews argue that, indeed, this centurion, because of his service to them, and care for the people under his charge as one of the local Roman overseers, was worthy of having his servant healed by Christ. "He is a good man," they say to Christ, "and therefore he's a good person for you to grant your charity."

The centurion, though, when he encounters Jesus, recognizes His authority, and humbly says to Him that he is not worthy even to have Christ come into his house (let alone heal the servant). And, in this humility, he simply makes the plea: "Please heal him." Christ then praises the faith of this man - and I think, too, the humility that accompanies true faith like his.

We whom Christ has touched and healed ought to walk in a way consistent with our understanding that we are not worthy to be healed - not worthy to be known by Christ, and led by Him - not worthy to be considered one of His sheep. We are not worthy, and He is faithful to care for those who humbly understand their sinful estate, and seek the healing waters that only Christ provides. There is none worthy of the miraculous work of salvation - not before or after the Holy Spirit has replaced the heart of stone with the heart of flesh. None is ever worthy, yet I know my own heart well enough to know that I don't always walk accordingly. May the humble faith of the Roman Centurion remind us of how we ought to regard ourselves, and how we ought to reflect this in our walk before the Lord.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

0 Ames on the Law's Function

In his Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, recently released by Reformation Heritage Books, William Ames provides 52 studies on the themes of the Heidelberg Catechism, as traditionally organized into 52 Lord's Days. I so much appreciate the translation and publication of this work - it is concise and at the same time profound. Ames's method in doing this I much appreciate - he takes texts which address the theme, and exposits them - as a means of bringing forth the doctrine summarized by the Heidelberg Catechism. In Lord's Day Two, the following questions are included:
3.Question: From where do you know your sins and misery?

Answer: From the law of God.

4. Question: What does God's law require of us?

Answer: Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.[1] This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

5. Question: Can you keep all this perfectly?

Answer: No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
In his exposition, Ames addresses Romans 7:7 - What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

Ames draws from this verse the following points: that we are blinded by our own nature, inherited from our first father Adam, such that we don't even recognize our own sinfulness and our own misery. The Law of God must be before us if we are to recognize God's ways and our own departure from them. As Ames notes,
"The entire person (totus homo), ravaged by a type of spiritual frenzy (intemperie), as if in an inebriated and lethargic stupor of death, can sense nothing rightly and spiritually. (p. 13, Sketch of the Christian's Catechism)
His "uses" for this doctrine are well worth considering:
1. For admonition, so that by this name we may truly humble ourselves and cast ourselves down in the presence of God, because indeed we are wretches, since we are not able of our selves to perceive our own misery.

2. For direction in renouncing all of our natural wisdom. Let us flee to God in such a manner and seek wisdom from Him, so that we may properly know ourselves as He does. (p. 13, Sketch of the Christian's Catechism)
This sets up Ames's Lesson 2, which is that "the Law of God is a unique ground for rightly perceiving our sin and the grounds of our misery." (p. 14, Sketch of the Christian's Catechism) Indeed, without the Law, we have no sense of how far short we fall - and what is required of us in God's sight. We have no understanding of the perfection of God's holiness and the defection of our own natures.

His very helpful discussion of Romans 7:7 concludes with some uses for us as we consider the Law in its revelatory function. God's Will indeed is shown to us in the Law and Gospel - in the Prophets and Apostles. (and we need search no further than God's word - no divination, no extra-sensory perception required. God's will is revealed in His Word... shall we not seek it out fully instead of looking for signs and wonders to direct us in our paths?) Ames directs us thusly to use the Law in this way:
1. For direction, so that in passing judgment concerning our life we may not follow either our own imaginations or the opinion of the general public, but the law of God only.

2. For admonition, so that we may continually make an examination of our life according to this law over the previous events o four life for our greater humiliation and into the future events for our more certain caution and correction in every part of our conversation. (p. 15, Sketch of the Christian's Catechism)
We will not understand our standing in God's eyes, and the means of renovation, if our understanding of it is grounded in our own imaginings. God alone reveals His will, standard and the solution to our sin and misery. He alone reveals the duties we have before Him - it is not in our power, or purview, to dictate what those duties are. If we are left to ourselves, we are left to vain imaginings that are of no more use in the rough seas of this world than a boat without a rudder.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

0 The Institutes: Calvin's Discussion of Orthodox Trinitarian Doctrine, Part I

Here I'm breaking out of the reading schedule, both because I'm badly behind thanks to the harried chaos of the past couple of weeks, but also because the units chosen in the Princeton schedule don't quite line up with good breaks in the material. In sections 1-6 of Chapter 13 of Book I, Calvin sets out to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity - and these sections serve as an important prolegomenon, setting up both the nature of theological language, and of the historical setting in which he is discussing the doctrine.

Calvin's determination as he begins discussion of the Trinity is to limit himself and his thoughts about the Trinity to what Scripture teaches, which follows directly on the heels of his previous arguments about the Holy Word of God. God has revealed Himself perfectly in His Word - and we need go no further (and indeed musn't go further) to describe Him. He writes, in discussing the attributes of God's immeasurableness (immensity) and His being spiritual, that, in presenting these attributes in Scripture,
"...even if God to keep us sober speaks sparingly of his essence, yet by those two titles that I have used he both banishes stupid imaginings and restrains the boldness of the human mind. Surely, his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him out by our own senses. Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him. (p. 121)"
Errors concerning God abound in the cults and in human imaginings not directly tied to cultic religions... and many of these errors come directly from men trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and give God properties that make conceiving of His being more readily possible. Calvin thus rightly points us to consider ONLY the Word of God - and the Word rightly understood together in all places - as our evidence of Who and What God is.

Calvin continues, then, to announce the three-ness of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as He portrays Himself to be in Scripture - there are indisputably three "persons" in God's being, despite our inability to comprehend exactly what that means. In section 3, Calvin argues for the propriety of using the word "Trinity" to describe God - in discussions I've had with Oneness Pentecostals in the past, this has been a significant bone of contention, since, as they argue, the actual word "Trinity" doesn't appear in Scripture. That fact, though, is irrelevant - many Scriptural summary words do not appear in Scripture, either, though the doctrine underlying the word we use for shorthand does. Wisely has the church used words like "Trinity" and "Person" to describe Scriptural doctrine and set boundaries on orthodox teaching. Like politicians of today, the impious "cloaked their errors in layers of verbiage." (p. 125) This is what I've called in the past the "Humpty Dumpty" tactic... using words that are in common with their opponents, pretending agreement because the same words are used, but relying on the deviation of "words mean what I mean they mean" in the end. Calvin continues, discussing the heretic Arius, who
"...confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God, and, as if he had done what was right, pretended some agreement with the other men. Yet in the meantime he did not cease to prate that Christ was created and had a beginning as other creatures. (p. 125)"
Hence we have the Council of Nicea in 325, at which council the discussion was centered on the Arian heresy and much of our current language concerning the Trinity was solidified. When opponents of truth claim commonality with the orthodox by using the same words (but secretly, or openly, as the case may be, meaning different things by the same words) the response often includes a more careful outlining of the truth through the use of other words whose meaning cannot be so jerrymandered to serve falsehood. Speaking of Sabellius, another heretic of an earlier age than Arius, and whose doctrine is at the heart of Oneness Pentecostalism and other modalist sects today, Calvin writes,
"Afterward Sabellius arose, who counted the names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as almost of no importance, arguing that it was not because of any distinction that they were put forward, but that they were diverse attributes of God, of which sort there are very many. If it came to a debate, he was accustomed to confess that he recognized the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Spirit as God; but afterward a way out was found, contending that he had just said nothing else than if he had spoken of God as strong, and just, and wise. And so he re-echoed another old song, that the Father is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Father, without rank, without distinction. To shatter man's wickedness the upright doctors, who then had piety at heart, loudly responded that three properties must truly be recognized as one God. And that they might fortify themselves against his tortuous cunning with the open and simple truth, they truly affirmed that a trinity of persons subsists in the one God, or, what was the same thing, subsists in the unity of God. (p. 125)"
Let us not succumb to the postmodern tendency of agreeing to disagree over such things as these. It is not a small matter to distinguish between the three persons of God and the false doctrine that those three persons are just "modes of operation". Such false doctrines elevate man's finite and pathetic reason over the Revelation of God and Scripture simply because we cannot comprehend every detail and how these details finally fit together. Let us let Scripture be Scripture and submit to its teaching.

There is a limitation to theological terms, even as there is a necessity of using them, as Calvin points out in section 5. In the end, he says, we will not satisfy those who truly want to wrangle. Calvin urges us, and rightly so, to simply confess what we believe Scripture plainly teaches and be done with it. To honestly, humbly and without guile set forth doctrine is our task - to wrangle and "dally over words", as Calvin puts it, is not our place nor is it profitable.
"...I have long since and repeatedly been experiencing that all who persistently quarrel over words nurse a secret poison. As a consequence, it is more expedient to challenge them deliberately than speak more obscurely to please them. (p. 128)"
One need only refer to Calvin's letters and the registers of the Company of Genevan pastors to see how true this is in Calvin's experience.

Calvin closes this portion of chapter 13 with a succinct definition of the word "person" or "subsistence" as is more directly translated from the credal language. His argument rests on the fact that Scripture presents separateness among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even as it presents their unity in the Godhead. This idea of "a subsistence", Calvin writes, "even though it has been joined with the essence by a common bond and cannot be separated from it, yet has a special mark whereby it is distinguished from it. Now of the three subsistences I say that each one, while related to the others, is distinguished by a special quality. (p. 128)" The Father is not the Son, nor is the Holy Spirit either the Father or Son. We see again and again in Scripture each of the three persons in communication with each other, or even together in the same Biblical passage, all three present and functioning simultaneously in different roles (e.g. the baptism of Jesus or the High Priestly prayer of John 17). This discussion of economy among the Trinity is Calvin's starting point for discussion in this important chapter of this critical doctrine. Next, he establishes the deity of all three persons, and I'll take this up next.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

0 The Institutes: God Alone Defines Worship

A couple weeks have gone by since my last post on the Institutes (and practically speaking on the blog at all). This is what accompanies the start of a new semester :)

Chapter 12 of Book I of the institutes is relatively brief - and addresses a key component of Calvin's thinking regarding God and honoring Him in worship. He begins by reaffirming our duty to honor God rightly - and in so doing, that we must leave to Him alone the honor befitting His name.
"...he defines lawful worship in order to hold mankind in obedience. He combines both under his law, first when he binds believers to himself to be their sole lawgiver, and then when he prescribes a rule whereby he is to be duly honored according to his own will." (p. 117)
God alone has the prerogative and power to declare what worship will be deemed appropriate and which not - and as such, the distinction between worship (latria) that the Roman church claims is appropriate only for God and the worship (dulia) that is allowable and even commanded for the saints and their statues, is a false construct. In practice it is exceedingly hard to understand what the distinction actually is (and using Scriptural examples, Calvin blows out of the water the idea that there is this exclusive distinction by which dead saints may rightly be worshipped). Saints are prayed to, asked to perform tasks, to give what God alone has the prerogative to give. Mary is seen by many as the one through whom God the Father should be approached, because of her kindness and gentle spirit. What wicked perversion this is!

To counter this, Calvin points people to the Scriptures as our only rule, and God's only revelation for the proper rule of worship.
"For by his law it pleases him to prescribe for men what is good and right, and thus to hold them to a sure standard that no one may take leave to contrive any sort of worship he pleases." (p. 120)
Calvin will have much more to say on the subject of worship later, but here he lays down a concise consideration. Let GOD bear His rule and make authoritative command of what is and what is not proper worship. Our role is to submit, to trust, and to call upon His name according to His will, which is revealed to us in His word. Inventions of ceremonies is as old as dirt, and has never been acceptable before our Sovereign God. Let us strive for a holy worship that honors Him as He must be honored.

Friday, February 06, 2009

1 Not to be Missed: Reprinting of Calvin's Tracts and Letters (7 vol)

Calvin's 7 volume set of Tracts and Letters is being reprinted by Banner of Truth, and has just been released, in honor of the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, at a cut rate of $80! Given this price, and the fact that this particular set has been out of print for as long as it has, it seems that this is a must buy for those interested in studying his thought.

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