Theological Thought » God’s Providence

Divine providence. Even if it is difficult to define, all people interact with it every day. Chapter 5 of the confession defines some terms to help us understand. The first paragraph describes both the scope and category of the term “providence”. 

Firstly, the term “providence” is firmly in the category of governance. It indicates that God, as the Creator, governs His creation. Secondly, the scope of this governance is “over all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” This governance over all things is not dependent on anything, but only God’s will.

In the second paragraph the direct line between God and all events is firmly established.  Yet, though God is directly in control of all things, He makes them happen through “secondary causes”. That means God does not usually intervene in the world through miracles, but works through people and circumstances, though the third paragraph makes it clear He is not obliged to do so.

The fourth paragraph makes it clear that even the fall and man’s sins are subsumed under God’s providence. Without attempting to explain it, the Confession does clarify that God is not the author of sin.

The righteous are under this providence tested and sanctified by God, while the wicked have His grace withheld causing them to harden themselves. And finally God’s providence is over the church in a special way.

Not all of these things are easy to understand, but God’s providence shows His glory.

Theological Thought » Creation

the Creator seen in creation

The third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, deals with God’s decrees. In the Shorter Catechism (Q&A 8) we are taught that God’s executes His decrees in part through the work of creation, which is the subject of the Confession’s fourth chapter. 

It opens by summarizing the doctrine of creation from Scripture. It affirms God’s unique work of creating out of nothing, that His work of creation includes both the visible and invisible, that it took place in six days and that He created all things good. The goodness of God’s creation is central to what is taught in the next paragraph.

In emphasizing that man was good when he was created, the Confession shows that man was not inclined to evil as he is today, but was created righteous, knowing God and His Moral Law. And yet, God in His wisdom created man able to sin.

This explanation of creation shows man’s happy original state in relation to God. Man is able to satisfy the requirements of his Creator and as long as Adam adheres to these good commandments he is in peaceful communion with God. 

This original condition sets the stage for the wonder of God’s decrees as touching man’s salvation. In creation, man is given this special relationship with God, and also a place of prominence over the rest of creation, and yet is able to fall. 

Creation establishes man’s foundational relationship with  God. No wonder the world seeks to minimize its significance. 

Theological Thought » God’s Decree

The third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith addresses the doctrine of God’s decree. Some of these truths are difficult to accept for some Christians, but they make us to dwell on the glory and power of God.

The first thing asserted in chapter 3 is that God ordains “whatsoever comes to pass.” To understand this truth there must be a clear distinction drawn between God making something necessary on the one hand and compulsory on the other.

For something to be necessary means the outcome cannot be avoided. That is what the Confession is saying about God’s decrees. However, that does not make the choice of man compulsory, in the sense that man is forced to do anything against his will.

What follows from that is that God never is responding. He does not make decisions based on gaining new information even through seeing things before they happen. However, the main controversy around this subject comes in its discussion on salvation.

The Confession teaches that God choses the eternal condition of all men and angels, whether it be heaven or hell. This choice is not based on what God knows about people, but according to His own purpose. People have difficulty accepting this truth.

Rather than making anyone boastful about receiving salvation, this doctrine should only serve to exalt the God who chooses and humble the person who receives salvation, because none are worthy of it.

Theological Thought » On God

The second chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith addresses the doctrine of God. 

The first paragraph deals with God’s attributes, both those which can be seen reflected in man (communicable attributes) and those which are unique only to God (incommunicable). The latter include His unchangeableness, and various aspects of His infinity, such as regarding time and space. These establish God as far greater than His creation and keep man from assuming some kind of peer-relationship with God who is highly exalted.

At the same time, God shows that His own image is placed on man. Man reflects his Creator in many ways, though the attributes of God that we mirror are not held in the same degree. Man may be wise, but God’s wisdom is without limit. Man may be merciful, but not to the same extent that God shows mercy. 

The second paragraph treats God’s independency, also called His aseity. God does not stand in need of anything to complete Him, neither does He gain any knowledge from His creation.

The third paragraph describes the mysterious nature of the Trinity: “three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity.” These are distinguished from each other by their properties.

Much more could be said, however the summary above is sufficient to direct man to worship. God’s greatness demands that His creation yields to Him any worship, service, or obedience He may require of it.

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.