Posts Tagged ‘ theology ’

Dividing Word and Sacrament

“A wife who only wants to share a meal with her husband once a month for fear of taking him for granted is kind of missing the point. This mystery is straightforward, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

Following up on my previous post, here are two brief thoughts about why I find the infrequent (i.e., less than weekly) celebration of the Lord’s Supper to be unfitting—I hesitate to say sinful, but unhelpful might be a good place to start—for the people of God and out of place within our broader system of doctrine.

First, consider Q/A 88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

Word, sacraments, and prayer are all especially mentioned as ordinary means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption. However, when we preach the Word every week and pray every week but do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, we run the risk of forgetting that sacraments are ordinary means of grace in the same way that the Word and prayer are. We deny with our actions what we affirm with our words. We treat the sacraments extraordinarily and, in this way, divide Word and sacrament.

Second,—and this point is a little more abstract, so bear with me—prioritizing the Word over sacrament by preaching the Word weekly without celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly implies a faulty theological anthropology. When we pour all of our effort into targeting our intellects, making an extended time of expository teaching the centerpiece of our worship without following up with the embodied practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we implicitly affirm a view of man as a primarily rational, intellectual being and implicitly deny the importance of the body. Even while we wholeheartedly deny a Gnostic or Cartesian anthropology with our words, we begin to allow these faulty views to sneak back in with our actions. Word and sacrament should not be divided precisely because they together address the whole person: intellect and affections, mind and body.

These thoughts have been prompted by—or, perhaps I should say, nearly stolen from—two excellent books: Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. Although I’m definitely late to the party, I can’t recommend these books highly enough. Even where I don’t fully buy their arguments (which is a rare occurrence), I find their perspectives immensely helpful to consider. Other resources which I have greatly appreciated with respect to a Christian view of the body are “The Mind/Body Problem in Biblical Perspective” by Greg Bahnsen, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in his Complex Contexts” by N. T. Wright, and Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson.


Frequency of the Lord’s Supper

If we believe that the Lord’s Supper is “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of [Christ] himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body” (WCF 29.1), wouldn’t it be a great blessing to a congregation to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week? Are there any good arguments for observing the Lord’s Supper less frequently?

The two most common arguments I have heard are that celebrating the Supper weekly would (1) make it less meaningful and (2) make the service take too long. I find these arguments unpersuasive. In response to argument (1), I would reply that this argument could as easily be applied to the weekly reading of Scripture, singing of Psalms and hymns, prayer, or any of the other elements of worship. If we really believe that the Lord uses the Sacraments to communicate his grace to us for our spiritual nourishment, then it is the Lord, not us, who makes the Sacrament meaningful. In addition, I know from my own personal experience, and that of many others to whom I have spoken, that a more frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper only serves to bring the meaning of the Supper to mind more often, making it more meaningful, not less. In response to argument (2), I would reply that this is an argument from pragmatism, and if the pragmatics of how long the service takes are that important (which I’m not convinced should be the case), there are other ways of shortening the service without leaving out one of the means of grace which God has ordained for our good (e.g., leaving out a few verses of a hymn, asking the pastor to shave a few minutes off the sermon, etc.). In summary, I don’t think it’s a sin to observe the Lord’s Supper less frequently, especially if there are extenuating circumstances a church must work through (such as a lack of resources). However, if a church has both the resources and the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly, I think it would only serve to bring the congregation closer to the Lord and to one another.

For a slightly more historical perspective, see this article.

Speaking Carefully about Justification

Justification is an extremely important doctrine, and, especially as Protestants, we want to do everything we can to protect it. If you get justification wrong, you’re in danger of missing the point of the Gospel entirely, with grave consequences. Now, that being said, before we go out and start pointing the finger of accusation at others, we need to be very careful to understand our own position and take care to communicate our position as clearly as possible.

So, for example, we might say something like, “Isn’t it wonderful that our good works don’t have anything to do with our justification?” And, at first, this seems to communicate a glorious truth about our justification, namely that we cannot do anything to merit our own justification. And, yes, that is wonderfully true! However, upon closer examination, our original statement actually says far more than we intended. Is it really true that there is no way in which our good works and our justification are related? Well, at the very least, we could say that our good works are evidence of our justification, and that both are the result of our union with Christ.

Or, we could be tempted to say, “Because of our justification, we don’t need to do any good works!” And, once again, this is getting at an important truth: we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33). We don’t need to do any good works in order to earn our salvation. But, do we need to do good works? Of course we do! Why? Well, the Bible tells us so! Christ commands us to do good works.

Furthermore, we might say, “We are justified, so there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more or less!” This is a tricky one, because it is absolutely true in one sense of the word love. The tricky part comes in when we realize that love is a complex concept. It is a word with many different meanings. The sense it has in our statement is that of God’s love of benevolence, God’s electing love which he has equally for all of his people. This is the love associated with justification. However, there is also another sense in which God loves us, and this is called God’s love of complacency. In this sense, God’s love for us is that of a father who blesses us when we obey and disciplines us when we break his commands. In this sense, God does love us more or less depending on the holiness of our behavior. [For more on this topic, see Mark Jones’s recent book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?]

If we can be careful to define what we’re talking about, I think we can go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary conflict with our brothers in Christ.

Christ’s Life of Faith

Mark Jones:

Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary man. He was the God-man, without spot, stain, or wrinkle in his human nature. But he still had a human nature, and because the finite cannot comprehend the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti), there was room for real advancement in his human nature. He knew no sin in his own experience, and the unity of his person—he is one person with two distinct natures—meant that he was unable to sin. Nevertheless, while he lived on earth during his stare of humiliation, he lived by faith, not by sight. Because Christ is the holiest man ever to have lived, he is the greatest believer ever to have lived (Heb. 12:2). There has never been, nor will there ever be, a more perfect example of living by faith than Jesus. Reformed theologians have historically agreed—though, I fear, we have lost this precious truth today—that Christ had faith for justification (i.e., vindication, Isa. 50:8). Of course, unlike us, he did not need to go through a mediator to be justified by his Father, for he was not ungodly like us (cf. Rom. 4:5). But he still needed justification, which culminated at his resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16), because of his accursed death (Gal. 3:13). By faith, he believed the word and promises of God. Furthermore, Christ did not exercise faith merely for himself; he also exercised faith for all those for whom he died, so that they may receive from him that particular grace. For there is no grace we receive that was not first present in Christ himself, particularly the grace of faith. As Richard Sibbes notes, “We must know that all things are first in Christ, and then in us.”

Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (P&R, 2013), p. 22-23.

Certainly worth pondering.

Toward a More Beautiful Music

Over the summer, I was blown away when I listened to Ken Myers’s Epiphany Lectures at New St. Andrews College. (Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve been blown away by Ken Myers lectures. Both times, I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in the subject, but once I heard the lectures they significantly changed the way I think about the world. The first time I heard him speak was when he gave a lecture at the Torrey Honors Institute in which he turned me onto CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book which is easily one of the most influential in my system of thinking.) In these lectures, entitled “Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning,” Myers lays out the beginnings of an argument for recovering a view of music as objectively good, true, and beautiful. Music has meaning and reflects the world more or less accurately depending on the quality of the music. That is to say, there is such a thing as good music, independent of cultural norms and personal preference. (To be sure, culture and personal preference play an important role in our interaction with music, but they are not the ultimate arbiters of what is good music.) Learning to discern good music from bad is a skill, and it takes training and practice. This is a view which has largely been abandoned in our culture, but it is a biblical view and one which would work wonders for the life of the church if it were recovered by Christians on a large scale. While Myers’s lectures are not exclusively concerned with church music and music in worship, the argument has direct implications for those subjects. The music with which we worship God should be music which is objectively good, true, and beautiful. Sadly, this is not the case in many instances of musical worship today.

Now, what I am going to say is likely to make people angry, so I will try to be as clear as possible in order to avoid unnecessarily stepping on anyone’s toes. I am not saying that contemporary worship music is comprehensively bad. I am not saying that worship experiences including contemporary worship music are invalid, inauthentic, incomplete, or deficient. I am not questioning the motives or intentions of the writers, performers, leaders, or singers of contemporary worship music. I do not doubt that many people worship God with contemporary worship songs, and I do not want to take anything away from their experiences. In fact, I do not have anything against contemporary worship music in as much as it is contemporary. There is a lot of contemporary worship music which is very good. I would much prefer a good contemporary song to a mediocre traditional song. However, I would argue that there is a fair amount of contemporary worship music which is “trite and superficial,” to quote Douglas Wilson in this Credenda/Agenda exchange with Jeffrey Ventrella.

Let me reiterate: in making this claim, I am not trying to invalidate or disparage anyone’s worship experiences, even if those experiences include music which I would consider trite and superficial. This is an objective critique of music, something which is public and corporate, not of anyone’s personal intentions or experiences. Establishing my claim that there is a lot of trite and superficial contemporary worship music is a project which I will not attempt at this time. I believe it could be established, but doing so would require extensive work to recover, develop, and apply the view of music argued for by Myers in the lectures cited above. This is important work which needs to be done, but more important than establishing the fact that there is bad music out there is establishing the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music. Further, it is more important to work toward the creation of good music and the cultivation of musical ability and discernment in the church than it is to ruminate on how bad some contemporary music is. It is my prayer that we will see a new blossoming of beautiful music in the church. Soli Deo Gloria.

[What follows is a collection of methodological observations about the exchange between Wilson and Ventrella in the Credenda/Agenda article linked to above.]

Wilson is, I believe, making an argument similar to that which I made in the previous paragraph. He is keen to establish the fact that there is such a thing as good and bad music and to encourage us to advocate for good music to be used in worship. However, Ventrella insists on keeping the discussion aggressively technical and antagonistic, with the result that very little is actually said or accomplished in the discussion. He uncharitably exaggerates Wilson’s statements and focuses on details of what Wilson says to the exclusion of the larger point Wilson is trying to make. Wilson is trying to propose the need for a more fully-orbed biblical aesthetic to be developed. Ventrella says that Wilson’s argument has failed because Wilson has not already completed the project he is proposing. Ventrella neither tries to understand and clarify Wilson’s position nor proposes an alternative. Rather, Ventrella attacks aggressively, preventing the discussion from moving forward. The only point that Ventrella seems to be advocating is that Wilson is an incoherent deceiver trying to enforce his own preferences as absolutes. Ventrella’s style may be appropriate for the courtroom, but it is counterproductive for a charitable exchange between two Christian bothers trying to come to a fuller understanding of the truth.

Reflections on Medical Ethics

The following is an assignment from my Medicine and Ethics class at Loma Linda University.

My Medical Ethic

Ethical questions are often difficult to resolve, and the ethical issues involved in medicine present some of the toughest ethical situations to address. There are many different opinions about what is the correct ethical decision in any given medical situation, but these differences of opinion reflect deeper differences: differences of worldview. A person’s worldview consists of his presuppositions about the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we know reality (epistemology), and how we ought to relate to reality (ethics). When two people start with different presuppositions about reality, different worldviews, it is not surprising when they come to different ethical conclusions.

As a Christian, my worldview and presuppositions come from the Bible. There can only be one ultimate source and standard of truth in general, and ethical truth in particular, by which all claims and actions must be evaluated. If we start making ethical judgments based upon what “seems right” or “makes good sense” to us instead of based upon what God has revealed in his word, we have placed our own human reason as a higher authority than God’s word. Human reason is fallen and utterly insufficient to the task of ultimate ethical authority and reasoning.[1]

However, that is not to say that human reason and situational considerations are irrelevant in ethical decision making. The Lord who reveals himself in his word is equally the Lord of the world and our minds. As Christians are transformed more and more by the renewal of our minds to conform to the image of Christ, we are more able to discern the will of God in our ethical decisions.[2] In the end, what is revealed in the Bible will cohere perfectly with properly functioning human reason and with what we find in the world.

On the whole, then, I am advocating a divine command theory of ethics, with the clarification that what is commanded cannot arbitrarily change, since God’s law is an expression and outworking of his own perfect, eternal, and unchangeable character. Ethical behavior is perfect conformity to the law of God. The crux of God’s law is the love of God and neighbor,[3] but we must look to the Bible to determine what that love looks like; we cannot use our own abstract definition of love, or else we would be once again subjugating God’s word to our own reason. We look to God’s law to find out how to love God and our neighbors.[4]

There are several broad principles which can be derived from Scripture concerning medical ethics in particular. The most overarching ethical principle governing medical ethics is the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.”[5] In addition to the proscription of the taking of innocent human life, this commandment encompasses several other more specific ideas. The rationale given earlier in Scripture for this commandment is that men are made in the image of God, and, therefore, every human life is sacred and has intrinsic value.[6] Here we have the concept of the sanctity of life, from which can be derived the well-known concept of non-maleficence. The robust application of the sixth commandment, though, goes beyond proscription of harm to the prescription of preserving life and minimizing suffering, an idea corresponding to the concept of beneficence. We can see this clearly illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.[7]

One final principle which is worth addressing in the context of medical ethics is that of the patient’s autonomy. While we can protect some of the main concerns of the principle of autonomy by acknowledging that no physician save Jesus has the right to impose a treatment by force, it seems to me that we must reject the language of autonomy itself. Humans are God’s creatures, and, as such, we are subject to his authority and responsible to him.[8] Competent persons should have the right to make their own medical decisions, insofar as their decisions are in conformity with the law of God, an authority which is higher than the person’s own desires. In the case of incompetent persons, it seems to me that family and church authorities should have a significant say in a patient’s medical decisions.

For an example of how these ethical principles might be applied, let us examine the case of Matthew Donnelly. The most ethically salient facts of his case are as follows: (1) he was terminally ill with no hope of recovery, (2) he was in constant and intense pain, (3) under the current treatment plan, he was expected to remain in this condition for about a year before he would die, (4) he desired to die, and he expressed this desire to his brother Harold, (5) Harold retrieved a gun and consumed alcohol with the intention of becoming inebriated, and presumably with the intention of killing his brother, and (6) Harold shot Matthew, killing him violently. An additional fact, although it is more of an inference, is that (7) there was a lack of discussion and consideration of other options for Matthew’s care, both with family and with doctors.

In this case, the relevant ethical principles are (A) the intrinsic value of Matthew’s life (the sanctity of life), (B) the scriptural proscription of taking or harming life (non-maleficence), (C) the scriptural prescription of doing good for others (beneficence), and (D) the extent to which Matthew’s desires expressed a competent fulfillment of responsibility to God.

On the one hand, one could argue that Harold was justified in taking Matthew’s life, for the following reasons. First, that was Matthew’s autonomous desire. Second, ending Matthew’s life ended his physical suffering, which could be an expression of minimizing harm as well as doing good for Matthew. One could argue that a sophisticated view of beneficence includes more than simply prolonging life at all costs; the whole person must be taken into account. However, I reject these arguments. In the first place, one does not have the right to desire one’s own death in order to have relief from suffering, since this is contrary to God’s law.[9] A patient’s right to make his own medical decisions only applies to decisions which are in conformity with the law of God. In the second place, while I agree that beneficence includes more than simply prolonging life at all costs, I believe it also includes more than ending pain at all costs; it seems to me that there is even a positive role that unavoidable suffering can play in the life of a Christian.[10] It seems that a better solution to Matthew’s situation would be to increase his pain management to be more aggressive and to discontinue other treatments such as radical and invasive surgeries, thereby letting Matthew die as comfortably as possible without actively killing him.

[1] Romans 1:18ff., especially v. 21.

[2] Romans 12:2, 8:29.

[3] Matthew 22:34-40.

[4] In keeping with Reformed tradition, I hold that the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments, so that is a good place to begin looking for ethical principles. However, all of Scripture is normative, and we must carefully navigate the whole counsel of God in making our ethical decisions.

[5] Exodus 20:13 (ESV).

[6] Genesis 9:6.

[7] Luke 10:25-37.

[8] See 1 Corinthians 6:19ff., for example.

[9] “Scripture always presents mercy killing negatively. Consider the following. (a) People in the Bible who either killed themselves or who sought to have themselves killed to avoid suffering are always seen as disobedient (Judges 9:54-57; 1 Sam. 31:3-6; 2 Sam. 1:9-16; 17:23; 1 Kings 16:15-19; Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18). (b) The command against murder includes murder of the self; suicide contradicts the legitimate self-love that Scripture assumes and commands (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:28). (c) Suffering does not render a life meaningless or valueless (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:11-18 and chapters 11 and 12). (d) Our lives are not our own; they are not at our own disposal (1 Cor. 6:19f.; 7:4).” (John M. Frame, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1988, p. 69.)

[10] See Romans 5:3, 2 Timothy 2:3, and 1 Peter 2-4, for a few examples off the top of my head. Christians are expected to suffer; while we should mitigate suffering if we can, suffering is not the ultimate evil and does not justify the taking of life.

Scattered Thoughts on the Uniqueness of the Gospel

Must one believe in Jesus to be saved? Can people who have never heard of Christ be saved somehow “through Christ” without believing in him? Here are some of my thoughts:

It seems fairly clear to me that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10), and this is the major motivating factor behind missions and evangelism. While I agree that salvation does not require a perfect theology, it seems that there is some bare minimum set of propositions which one must believe to be saved (i.e., the gospel is propositional as well as relational). “Jesus is Lord” or “Christ and him crucified” would be good places to start. I agree that all men have knowledge of God (Rom. 1), but it seems to me that Paul’s argument is that all men have enough knowledge of God to make them accountable but have rejected God and therefore cannot be saved by this knowledge. Men (even remote tribesmen who have lived and died without hearing the gospel) are not condemned for failing to believe the gospel; they are condemned because they have rejected God and are sinners. We don’t risk condemning people by evangelizing them and thus making them responsible for the gospel; they were condemned already, and we are providing them the only hope of salvation. It seems like a fundamental part of the good news of the New Testament is that the gospel is for all men, Jew and Gentile alike. It is in this sense that I interpret “all men” in verses like Titus 2:11 (“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”); the verse is not referring to every single person who ever lived. If it were, then every single person would be saved.

Do Jews pray to the same God we do? That’s certainly an interesting question, but it seems to me that we believe in a Trinitarian God. If Jews deny the divinity of Christ, not only have they rejected God’s means of salvation and his revelation in the New Testament (i.e. they no longer possess the oracles of God), but they have rejected the very nature of God himself. I am not advocating any kind of anti-Semitism; rather, I am advocating the best way in which we can show love to Jews: sharing the good news with them.

[NB: This is adapted from a note I wrote to someone about a previous discussion, in case it sounds slightly out-of-context.]