Theological Thought » The Attributes of Scripture

Bible Open

There are two basic categories any person needs to live in the presence of the God who created the heavens and the earth. First, he must know what he is to believe about God. Second, he must know how he should live before such a God. These two broad categories cannot be discerned from what is around us, and therefore it is imperative that any man begin with a study of the Bible.

The significance of the Bible is explained by many. Reformed Christians can turn to their confessions for a summary of what Scripture teaches about itself. The Westminster Confession of Faith is one such resource. Its first chapter deals with Scripture. It answers anyone who is asking what they should believe about the Bible.

First, it teaches that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are necessary. It explicitly rejects the apocryphal books adopted by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are necessary that man would know God’s plan of salvation. What can be known about God in general revelation (nature, God’s providence in history) is not enough to teach us of Christ, repentance and salvation.

Second, the Bible is authoritative. There are many times when people demand proofs about what is said in God’s word. This demand essentially sets man up as judge over the Bible. However, since God is the Bible’s author, it is to be received, not challenged. In the Bible God sets down all that is necessary for faith and practice. As such the Bible is the final court of appeal for any belief or practice among God’s people.

Third, it is clear. All that is necessary to know God and holy living is clearly taught in the Bible. That does not mean that all parts of the Bible are equally easy to understand. However, the essential message of the is clear to all who would read the Bible. A child who applies themselves to read Scripture will understand that God is Creator, man is sinner, Christ is Redeemer, that holiness is expected, and that glory will be the final outcome for those who trust in God through Christ.

Fourth, it is inspired. Its content is breathed out by God Himself. Meaning that wherever the Bible asserts something as fact it is true. Keeping in mind that poetic sections are not to be read in a wooden, literal fashion, there are no errors in what God says to His people. That is true of all the Scriptures, not just in the concepts that it teaches but in every word that is spoken in it.

Fifth, Scripture in infallible. That means the Bible does not fail to accomplish its purposes. Its study accomplishes the redemption of God’s saints and the hardening of His enemies.

For a Christian, the Bible must be the starting point because it is only in his reading of what God has spoken that he can properly make sense of his life. Not only does he need it for knowing God, but also for how he must serve and worship Him.

The Second Presburg Colloquy: Radney and Gleason on Intinction and Tiers

On September 21, 2022, Pastor Derek Radney and I engaged in a debate on the subject of intinction, moderated by Brad Isbell of presbycast. You can watch the debate here. Subsequent to the debate there have been additional exchanges in the twitterverse, some of which have brough more heat than light. I am for public discourse, but only as a fair representation of a brother’s position. Since in the debate we were not able to deal with all the issues of intinction, I thought it appropriate to respond to Pastor Radney’s article in which he argues that intinction is legitimate and valid practice. To interact with the article is to interact with Pastor Radney’s stated position, as he has articulated it. As part of that article, he makes six arguments for intinction as allowable.

  1. Jesus did not command that we partake of bread and wine in two separate actions. 

I respond: I do not think the Scriptural data supports Pastor Radney’s claim. On the one hand it is true. Jesus never specifically says, “You must partake of the bread and wine in two separate actions.” However, Jesus does clearly lay out how the Lord’s Supper is to be ordered. Scripture gives the structure of the Supper four times: Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and, 1 Cor. 11:23-29. In each text, eating the bread and drinking the cup are separate actions each with their own meaning. The bread is the body of Christ broken and the cup is the blood poured out. Pastor Radney does not believe Jesus had any mode of distribution in view. However, when He lays out the order of the supper He does so with two separate actions explicitly commanded: eating and drinking. So Pastor Radney’s statement is technically correct, but theologically wrong. Jesus does not command the church must partake of bread and wine in two separate actions. But He does not need to do so, because when He gives the structure of the Lord’s Supper He orders it with two separate actions.

  1. Intinction should not be rejected on the grounds of Regulative Principle of Worship because the words of the Gospels and 1 Cor 11 are not applied consistently.

As part of this larger point, Pastor Radney makes two sub-points. First, he identifies certain inconsistencies between the various accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. For example, only Matthew’s account directly includes the language “Take, eat.” and “Drink of it.” Only in Luke’s account does Jesus tell the disciples to divide the cup (Luke 22:17). Only in Mark did the disciples drink the cup before Jesus explained its meaning. Second, he criticizes opponents of intinction as being inconsistent in their readings of those texts.

I respond: To his first point, inconsistencies between gospel accounts must be understood by harmonizing them. Absence of information in one gospel does not imply the other is incorrect. If Matthew’s account includes the commands to eat and drink, but Mark leaves it out, that does not mean that Matthew is wrong and Mark is right. The accounts are understood together, each pointing to the truth in a unique way. The gospel accounts of the institution, supplemented by the apostolic explanation in 1 Cor. 11:23ff clearly have agreement and command the following:

      • Eating the bread first;
      • Drinking the cup after supper.

His second sub-point has Pastor Radney question the clarity of the biblical command based on other issues surrounding the supper that are ignored by critics of intinction. He gives several examples: 1) There was likely only one loaf; 2) There was likely a communal cup; 3) The Lord’s Supper as part of the larger Passover communal meal; and, 4) The meal was likelyserved with wine not juice. And here he makes a hermeneutical point for his critics. The commands to eat and drink are clear and cannot be understood to mean something else. However, the argument for the common cup and loaf, wine, and the implications of the Supper coming out of the Passover are likely true. In other words, these issues lack the clarity of the explicit commands of Scripture which are giving regarding eating and drinking. Even if the church must wrestle through the less clear questions as well, it can begin by honoring the clear commands of Scripture regarding the celebration of this sacrament.

  1. There are practical reasons why a session might opt to administer communion by intinction.

I respond: Appealing to the pragmatic is a terrible way to do theology. There are plenty of examples from Scripture that prove this point. What might be some practical reasons that a priest might alter the recipe for the incense to be offered in the tabernacle (Cf. Lev 10:1ff; Ex 30:9)? What might be some practical reasons that the Levites might move the ark on a cart rather than carry it on poles (2 Sam 6:5ff; Ex 25:14)? What might be some practical considerations that would justify Israel’s delay in invading the promised land (Num 13:1ff)? Of course, each example shows that obedience to God’s commands overrides any practical consideration that might be brought to bear. Pragmatism is never praised in Scripture because it tends to place what works over what is commanded.

  1. Nothing is lost in the significance of each element or the meal as a whole by partaking of the elements together.

I respond:  The testimony of all Reformed theologians affirms that the distinct consumption of the elements is necessary to preserve what they symbolize. Many prominent voices have argued for the urgency of the spiritual significance of each element of the meal celebrated distinct from the other. Below are two sample quotes:

“It is to that end that in the Supper the body and blood are depicted separately, each by a sign of its own. To that end Christ expressly states that his body was given and his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. To that end the significance of the blood is even explained at greater length in the words of institution than that of the body, for it is the blood that makes atonement for sins on the altar. Even though Christ is worshiped, the communion that is realized through faith and is strengthened through the Lord’s Supper is and remains a communion with his crucified body and with his shed blood.” [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, translated by John Vriend, edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 4:579]

“We are not able to take this great mysterious fruit of God’s love in gross, in the lump; and therefore he gives it out, I say, in parcels. We shall have the body broken to be considered; and the blood shed is likewise to be considered.” [John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:527]

Other men like James Bannerman in The Church of Christ, Wilhelmus a Brakel in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, have also argued for the importance of bread and wine as separate.

  1. Intinction should not be dismissed because it is practiced by traditions with which we Presbyterians have other disagreements or because of its origins.

I respond: At this point I am in agreement with Pastor Radney. Though the source of certain ideas may give pause because of their origins, truth is truth, no matter who says it. Christians can learn from brothers in other denominations regardless of the points of disagreement.

  1. Intinction should not be dismissed on account of Judas dipping his bread at the Last Supper.

I respond: Again, we are agreed on this point. I have not heard people making this argument, but if they are, at the very least that would not be the place where I would formulate my objections.

From my interactions with Pastor Radney, I believe him to be sincere in his beliefs. And in an attempt to shed light on this subject, and as a follow-up to the debate, I have offered the following responses. The question of intinction is significant because the right administration of the sacraments is one of the three marks of the church of Christ. And this issue must be examined in light of Scripture. Debate and interaction are needed to bring clarity on a subject. It is my hope this article has contributed to that growth in clarity.

Church History Snippet – Constantine V

Constantine V was born in the fall of 718 and died in 775. He  assumed formal responsibilities of governing the Byzantine empire as a co-regent of sorts in the 730s. He became the sole ruler of Byzantium in 740 when his father died. Much of Constantine V’s reign is remembered for his involvement in the iconoclastic controversy begun by his father Leo III in 726. The early years of his reign were preoccupied with weathering his brother-in-law Artavasdus’ attempts to dethrone him. However, in 752 that he did pick up where his father left off.  and did so from a more theological and less pragmatic angle.

Constantine approached whether images of Christ are legitimate for the Christian from a Christological perspective. It is ironic in that John of Damascus uses the same doctrine to justify icons and images. However, though they share the same doctrine, their conclusions are far apart. Whereas John argues that because Christ is truly man His human nature may be drawn or sculpted, Constantine argues the opposite. In light of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in the one person Constantine argues that “the depiction of the prosopon (or hypostasis) which came into existence as the result of the union of the two natures cannot be accomplished, since of necessity this would involve the circumscription of the immaterial, divine nature.”[1] In other words, because of the union between Christ’s human and divine natures you cannot represent one without the other.

Constantine is reaching back to the fourth ecumenical Council of Chalcedon of 451 which declared the human and divine natures of Christ to exist without confusion or separation. At this point Constantine builds on his father’s initial second commandment argument by showing its relation to the orthodox articulation of the definition of Christ at Chalcedon. And with the iconoclast position in the ascendency, Constantine looks to formalize and bolster it with the approval of the church, which he does by calling the Council of Hiereia in 754.

[1] Stephen Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm During the Reign of Constantine V (Louvain: Secretariat du Corpus SCO, 1977), 41.

Church History Snippet – St. John of Damascus

This post is not meant to be a complete summary of all that St. John of Damascus wrote and did. It is simply looking at his contribution to the 8th century controversy surrounding iconoclasm, or the destruction of images of God in any persons of the Trinity. Last Church History Snippet looked at Leo III who initiated the formal controversy around these kinds of images in Byzantium, though previous informal disagreements and discussions on this subject certainly existed.

John of Damascus was born in 675 and did not reside in the Byzantine empire. Instead he was a subject of a Muslim Caliph in Damascus. He became a monk in 706 and moved to Jerusalem. In response to Leo’s policy of iconoclasm,  John writes three treatises on divine images. The first one is published in 726, almost immediately after the developments in Constantinople become known. The second, written around 730, and the third written before 750, copy extensively from his first treatise. In his three works, John argues for the proper use of images from eight basic groupings. Their critique is included:

    1. Because Christ took on human flesh, He may be depicted. Objection: Borrowing from the argument David VanDrunen makes in his article “Pictures of Jesus and the Sovereignty of Divine Revelation“,  it is certainly within God’s right to depict himself according to His own perfect wisdom. However, God revealing Himself, and man making a representation of His from his own imagination are two very different things.
    2. The word “veneration” has multiple applications, and can be given to a variety of objects. Objection: Is it possible John of Damascus is the first person to promote nuance? That is not a serious question, but beware of those who adjust definitions and make clear meanings of words confusing to justify their practice.
    3. Veneration given to an image is actually offered to the person or object it represents. Objection: Even if this statement is true, the Bible commands God’s people not to worship Him in the ways of the pagans who worship their gods through images (Cf. Deuteronomy 12:4).
    4. Objecting to icons and images is to adopt the error of the Manichees. Objection: Although it is a clever strategy to associate your theological opponents with heretical views, John of Damascus does not accurately represent the view of the iconoclasts who did not hold that the material is bad but the spiritual is good.
    5. The church has used images in the past, and this tradition justifies their continued use. Objection: Leo III appealed to the second commandment for his iconoclastic policy. The Word of God is the standard of right theology and practice and cannot be overridden by appeals to previous practice. This statement does not even acknowledge that church tradition could be incorrect. Using this logic, there could never have been a Protestant Reformation.
    6. It is inevitable to form a picture of Christ in your mind so you can make images. Objection: Just because it is difficult to resist sin, or even if sin is inevitable, that does not justify continuing to walk in it.
    7. Old Testament Israel was prone to idolatry through graven images, but that is not the cases in the New Testament Church. Objection: I hardly think this needs comment. Man is just as prone to make idols today as he was 3,000 years ago. It is simply wishfully naive to suggest otherwise.
    8. Since God commanded representations of the world to be made in the construction of the Tabernacle, therefore representations of the Son while He is in that same world are acceptable too. Objection: That is true in so far as the question is about making representations of objects that are not the human nature of the 2nd person of the Trinity. However, as soon as you introduce the divine person, the question is different, because God was not represented in the artwork of the tabernacle.

The objections which are included notwithstanding, John of Damascus continues to be a force in the discussion of the proriety of images of Jesus. His arguments, or parts of them, have more or less been adopted by proponents of images of Jesus from the time he made them even until today.

Sending Out Your Young Men

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
(2 Timothy 1:5-7)

As much as a father like to fix his son’s behavior, the most important thing he can leave him with is the very thing that gives meaning and structure to life. And that thing is not found in good behavior. To only instill good behavior in our sons is to give them a fish, but not a fishing pole. There is tremendous benefit for life in learning social graces, courtesies and so on. In a Christian home, specific commandments and their applications as derived from God’s word will help sons know how holiness is rightly expressed. And a good father will teach these things. Yet, a father cannot be satisfied sending his son out of his home, knowing that he is a “fine young man.” He must show to his son an abiding focal point that will motivate and direct a young man to consider why he does what he does no matter what circumstances he may face in life. And this focal point is only found in the gospel.

In using the word “gospel” what is in view is the good news of salvation for sinners through the blood of Christ received by faith. And though it may seem like it is abstract and intangible, in reality it is quite different. A right understanding of the gospel will touch every part of life. It will effect what is done in marriage, as a father, in prayer and study of God’s word, what church is attended and served, how money is managed, sexual faithfulness, and even how a man prepares for death. If those issues are not pressing into a young man’s “present”, he will face them one day or another. This gospel must be known, understood, and received by faith. So what is this gospel, specifically?

The gospel cannot be reduced to a slick phrase, a slogan, or a bumper sticker. These kinds of catchy sayings are all around us, thanks in no small part to the advertising industry. Tag lines are remembered, jingles can be sung long after they have been heard, and yet life cannot be ordered around them. There is, in a sense, a simple gospel message, but the reality and the full weight of the gospel is understood when the context within which this good news is given is felt. The message itself and the context of it are given in the Bible, God’s story of the way He saves sinful man by the blood of His Son.

The summary statement talks of forgiveness by the gracious application of the blood of Christ by the Holy Spirit to the heart of sinful men through faith in His  perfect obedience and sacrifice. But around that simple statement is the larger context of that message of hope. That context includes God as creator making all things visible and invisible. God who rules and reigns over this creation, who sets the rules, and determines consequences and punishments. It includes man as sinner, eternally indebted to the creator for his many sins against Him. It includes Christ as redeemer, shedding His precious blood to satisfy the debt owed by men. These things must be known, and when they are they serve as a foundation for a grateful life.

Church History Snippet – Leo III

In church history there are two significant Leo IIIs. One was the pope who crowned Charlamagne emperor in 800 AD. The other was emperor in Constantinople from 717-741AD. It is the second Leo that is in view in this church history snippet.

The iconoclast controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries are unique in that they are not driven primarily by churchmen or theologians. These certainly participate, but they are not the catalysts that would force the Church to deal with a controversy that had been brewing for some time. It was the iconoclastic policies of emperor Leo III, also known as Leo the Issaurian, that forced a formal treatment of this subject by the church.

Leo III came to the throne during a time of upheaval in the Byzantine empire. That turmoil can even be seen in how he ascended to the throne. Leo III was not a natural heir of the throne, but a military commander who usurped the throne from another. And in the midst of that political chaos, Leo adds theological controversy by articulating and implementing a policy of iconoclasm within the Byzantine empire. Iconoclasm, for the sake of this subject, is the destruction of religious images. Leo, as the catalyst of bringing this disagreement in the church into focus, is a significant man in church history, especially when it comes to the development of the church’s understanding of whether images of Jesus are permitted.

Relatively little is preserved of Leo III’s arguments in favor of the destruction and/or removal of such images from churches. Understanding his views has to come from looking at the response of his opponents. However, it is known that he began his assault on images in 726. Though the motivations for doing so are far from clear, it was likely partly religious, but not purely so. Certainly there was a religious component to his iconoclasm, however, it seems to have been tinged with pragmatism and superstition. According to some, his religious actions were influenced by a desire for political stability in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Wherever he found himself on the spectrum from pragmatism to principle, it is not fair to discount Leo’s religious impulses entirely. Though perhaps motivated in part by the social condition of his empire, Leo III did make a theological argument as well.

Leo III’s iconoclastic policy was pretty straightforward. He believed images of Jesus and/or the saints were idolatrous and should not be allowed in his empire. The biblical foundation for his argument was based on the second commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6).

The initial line of argumentation from those seeking to forbid images of Jesus is a fairly simple appeal to the second commandment. Leo III seems to have made a basic connection between an image of Jesus and the prohibition in Exodus 20:4. The position articulated by Leo III is the opening salvo of a controversy that would continue intermittently into the Protestant Reformation and even into today.


Avoid Such People

Some Christians naively assume that love requires us to maintain personal relationships with all sorts of people without any kind of discrimination. It is often pointed out that Jesus was “a friend of sinners” who spent time building relationships with the tax collectors and prostitutes.

While this is undoubtedly true of the Lord Jesus, it is often conveniently omitted that Jesus was seeking to call such people to repentance (Luke 5:32). Nevertheless, the idea prevails that Christian love demands indiscriminate relationships with all kinds of sinners.

I want to submit to you that this is a completely unbiblical idea.

The Bible unequivocally teaches us to avoid certain kinds of people. For starters, take the situation of an excommunicated church member in 1 Corinthians 5. We are told “not to associate” with such a person (1 Cor. 5:9, 11). The avoidance called for in these verses includes not even eating with such a person (1 Cor. 5:11). This would surely be denounced as unloving by many in the church today and contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Attempts would be made to explain away the force of the words. But there really is no way to discount the plain teaching of Scripture in this regard. We are commanded by the Lord: do not associate with the professing Christian who stubbornly refuses to repent of sin.

Another example can be found in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 which speaks about the wickedness that abounds in the last days.

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

This description of ungodly times sounds all too familiar. And notice how Paul tells us to relate to these kinds of people. He says, “Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5). Notice that there is nothing here to indicate that he is referring to excommunicated persons which was the case in 1 Corinthians 5. Here he is speaking in general about people who are wholly given over to wickedness. We need to remember that total depravity does not mean that every single human on the planet is equally depraved. There are degrees of sin, and there are degrees of being given over to sin. We need wisdom therefore to discern the kinds of people we must avoid.

We are given one primary reason for avoiding such people. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals.” Spending time with ungodly people shapes our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and general character. Personal relationships are highly influential on one’s life. Bad friendships and associations can be cancer to the soul. This was the general reason to avoid wicked people in the Old Testament. The Psalter opens with these words:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

Here there is a clear summons to avoid ungodly company. How foolish it is to appeal to the example of Jesus to overturn this clear scriptural teaching! Jesus is the blessed man par excellence. Our Lord affirms and upholds the wisdom of separation from ungodly society.

The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about entertaining relationships with those who would corrupt our character. Consider the example of Proverbs 22:24: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man.” It is supremely unwise to think that we can befriend every man. While we should seek to do good to all men and should not harbor bitter feelings toward any person, we are not called to maintain personal relationships with those who are destroying themselves and are likely to bring us down with them.

We also have exhortations to disassociate with false teachers and those who bring division into the church. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he said,

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).

And when writing to Titus, he said,

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10).

There is an interesting account from church history that illustrates this point. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna and was a disciple of the Apostle John. He relates the following story about how the beloved apostle interacted when he encountered a false teacher:

“John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerenthus within, rushed out of the bathhouse without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerenthus, the enemy of the truth is, within.’”

We may object to John making a scene, but his attempt to flee from a false teacher is in keeping with the spirit of the biblical theology of avoidance. It does not reveal a lack of love or harsh bigotry.

Our personal relationships call for great wisdom. We should not be guilted into thinking that we are bound to maintain relationships with all sorts of people. There are people to be avoided like the plague. This is not unloving or contrary to the spirit of Christianity. In fact, holiness demands it! What is unreasonable, unwise, and unbiblical is to teach Christians that they should associate with ungodly people because it is the loving thing to do. The Holy Spirit says,

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:6-7).


Part 7 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: Conclusion

“God has promoted kings, that they may promote justice. As they have a sword in their hand, to signify their power; so they have a scepter, an emblem of justice.” (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 123)

Last installment summarized the reformed, confessional stances on obedience to the civil magistrate. And I want to focus in, by way of conclusion, on a concept that all the confessions had, although they describe it in various ways.

The Heidelberg Catechism calls Christian to honor the “good instruction” of the magistrate. The Second Helvetic confession demands obedience to “just and fair commands”. The Westminster Larger Catechism says the magistrate sins when it uses its authority in an “unlawful” and “unjust” way. The point of all of them is that there are limits to the authority of the magistrate. Therefore, it is not necessary to obey the magistrate when he strays outside of his lane.

This statement is not controversial when it comes to others in authority. If I seek, because I am a father to my children, think I can command all children it should come as no surprise that those outside my family will not listen to me in the same way. If an elder from a Presbyterian Church in America congregation asserts himself at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s meeting, he will be ruled out of order. If the president of the United States issues orders for the Prime Minister of England, he will be ignored. And so it is for citizens. When a government takes authority that does not belong to it, Christians are right to ignore it. The civil magistrate is not god and does not have limitless powers.

There have been some examples of a public reprimand for government officials taking more authority than they have. President Biden’s administration ordered that all businesses with more than 100 employees require COVID vaccination or regular testing. The Supreme Court ruled that “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.”[1] In other words, the government took for itself power that had not been delegated to them. It is neither a “good instruction,” “just and fair” command, or lawful. A company would have been wrong to submit to such an order from the civil magistrate. Herein is the summary of this series.

The Christian is not called to a blind submission to all decrees from the civil magistrate. There are obvious exceptions. When the government commands a sin, the Christian is not to obey. But in the same way, the Christian is not required to yield obedience to unlawful commands. That is not an endorsement of violence and uprisings. It is simply saying that in the face of rapidly expanding unlawful powers being seized by the government, the Christian may quietly refuse an unlawful command and must be willing to suffer the consequences if they do.


Part 6 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Confessions and Catechisms

“To exercise authority, without recognizing and accepting the corresponding responsibility, is to act irresponsibly and is always sinful.”[1]

The last installment (Dec., 2021) dealt with the 5 limitations to the powers of the civil magistrate. And then COVID happened (to me), life got busy, and now it’s May. That certainly is not how I meant to end. At this point it feels kind of anti-climactic to continue with this examination. But before I can leave it alone, I still want to resolve two things. First, a summary of a variety of Reformed confessions and catechism to gain insight into what the church of 400 years ago thought of the Christian’s response to a magistrate who oversteps his bounds. Second, how the Christian should respond to instances of government overreach. This article will handle the first of these.

The first catechism to examine is the Heidelberg Catechism. In Q/A 104 it teaches that obedience to the fifth commandment requires, “that I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weakness and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us with their hand.” Here the Christian is called to obedience to all the “good instruction” the government may give. Ursinus, who is the primary author of this catechism, in his commentary on this question and answer, explains that the magistrate undermines this responsibility through tyranny. Ursinus describes tyranny as “demanding from their subjects what is unjust.”[2]

In Chapter 30 of the Second Helvetic Confession, it describes the duties of subjects of kings: “Therefore let them honor and reverence the magistrate as the minister of God; let them love him, favor him, and pray for him as their father; and let them obey all his just and fair commands.” The Second Helvetic essentially repeats the Heidelberg’s assertions, namely that the limits of the civil magistrate’s instruction are more than simply their national borders, but also justice and fairness. If the Christian is to obey all just and fair commands, the logical implication follows from these documents is that he is not obligated to obey unjust and unfair commands.

The Westminster Standards also address this issue in the Westminster Larger Catechism. As part of its Larger Catechism’s treatment on the fifth commandment, Q/A 130 notes that the sins of one in authority includes “commanding things unlawful…or anyway dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.” In his commentary on the Larger Catechism, Johannes Vos primarily focuses on commands from people in authority that require sin on the part of its subjects. He cites the examples of Nebuchadnezzar’s command that all people worship the statue he set up, Darius’ command forbidding prayer, Amos being forbidden from prophesying by king Amaziah, and so on.[3] But it also lists Nabal as an example of an unjust authority. And though these examples may reinforce for us the limits of government, they do not aid us in determining a right Christian response.

More on that next time. Hopefully not five months from now.

[1] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), 353.

[2] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1852), 578.

[3] Johannes Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism, 354.

Part 5 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Limits of Power (Part II)


“A power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent.”
Samuel Rutherford, A Christian Manifesto

Last installment looked at the limits of different authorities, all of which God has instituted to serve Him in the world He created. Before moving on to the confessional statements about authority, specifically laid out in the fifth commandment, I want to revisit these three limitations by way of quick review, and add two additional thoughts.

In the limitations drawn out so far, this series outlined three specific ways the government’s authority is naturally limited. The civil government is limited first by its national borders. That seems fairly obvious. Second, they may not treat their citizens as their own property. Tyranny is men with a derived authority, acting as if they hold that authority as their possession. Tyranny itself is usually rejected, but the response is where the waters get muddy. More on that later. Third, governments must themselves be subject to the laws of their own nation.

In this article I want to add two more limits to lawful authority, specifically as it applies to the civil government. The fourth limit is that government is to act honestly with its citizens. It may not prosecute based on bearing false witness, neither may they use false pretenses to justify powers they would not usually hold. The state must prosecute and legislate honestly. Just to address the elephant in the room here, the next paragraph is not going to be that COVID is a hoax. But I am willing to say that a 2-year state of emergency based on an illness with a less than 1% mortality rate is not honest. These claims no longer serve as a justification for sweeping powers that certain governments want to appropriate for themselves: powers that control private business, medical rights, and even ecclesiastical matters. And when an authority uses dishonesty to expand its powers, they are working outside of the limits of the authority which has been entrusted to them.

The fifth limit is that government may not assume authority entrusted to others. That means the civil magistrate has no authority over the business of the church or family. Applying that principle in church and/or family is often easier and clearer. For example, the church is only free to proclaim what God’s word has plainly said, or what can be derived from it by good and necessary consequence. It may not enter into formal discipline for matters of conscience, but only clear, unrepentant violations of God’s commandments. When the church does either of these things it exceeds the limits of the authority entrusted to it. In the same way, fathers may not administer the sacraments to their families in their homes or excommunicate their children from the church. Ironically, within the Christian community when church and father exceeds the limits of their authority, there is a large outcry in the church. Justifiably so. Why not when the same thing is done by the civil magistrate?

Some may object to this and point to cases where the civil magistrate has rightly addressed fraud in the church or abuse in the home. But to think carefully through those examples, it is plain that when a church commits fraud, it is operating unlawfully in its ecclesiastical authority. Or when a husband abuses his wife or children, he is acting unlawfully, which moves beyond the boundaries of his authority as God has given it. Returning to the realm of the civil magistrate, that means the government is in no way to interfere with anything that rightly falls under the authority of the church and/or family. That means no control over any part of religious worship as was recently seen in COVID measures in several states in our Union, most notable California. That means no right to mandatory government education as is the case in several European nations. That means a respect for bodily autonomy. The authority of the civil magistrate has limits, and these should be respected.

By way of summary, let me just enumerate the five limits described above. The government is limited in its use of power in the following ways:

    1. The authority of any civil magistrate does not extend beyond its national borders. That would be a violation of the 8th commandment;
    2. Tyranny is not within the proper purview of government authority. Its citizens are not its property. To treat them as such would be a violation of the 1st and 8th commandments;
    3. Government must themselves operate under the rules and laws of their nation. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment;
    4. Falsehood and propaganda cannot be used as a means to justify authority that would otherwise be unlawful. That would be a violation of the 9th commandment;
    5. The magistrate may not encroach on authority given by God to another institution. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment.

The main point is that, as a servant of God appointed for the good of its citizens (Rom. 13:4), the Moral Law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments also applies to the government. Its authority is exercised within the limits prescribed by God and the good laws of the commonwealth it governs.

Everything up to this point is to establish that the civil magistrate may overstep its rightful bounds. When other authorities like church and family do so, there is a reasonable expectation of response. And that should not be different in the case of the government either. The question that is so challenging is, what is that response? How does a Christian respond in a Christlike manner when the civil magistrate exceeds the limits of its powers. These questions will be addressed in our next installment.