No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)

Democratization of American Christianity  “The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church.”

So writes Nathan Hatch in his assessment of American religion in his excellent book, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Many of the major weak spots in the American church today were already prevalent in the 19th century (e.g. “no creed but the Bible” was a common sentiment in the 19th century).  Hatch writes,

“In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, ‘a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.’ …In the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.”

Hatch calls this “populist hermeneutics” because it wasn’t necessarily a Christian hermeneutic, a churchly hermeneutic, or a confessional one – it was a hermeneutic of the common individual divorced from the church and the historic Christian tradition.  “Solo Scriptura” had its American origins in the 1800s.

Ironically, this populist hermeneutic was led by “a few strong [religious] figures imposing their own will.”  Nevin, who was critical of this hermeneutic, said this:

“The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles.  These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.”

In other words, the [celebrity] leaders of this “populist hermeneutic” told common Americans to read the Bible as if they were the first ones reading it and forget about the creeds and Christian scholars before them.  On the other hand, the leaders were ultimately dominating the movement and many of the people were following them.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of those Christians in history who went before them, these people were forgetting those who had gone before them and following the current popular [celebrity] leader.

Sadly, this still happens today.

The above quotes were taken from pages 182-3 of The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Christ our God

Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 Christians have always confessed that Christ is divine – not a being less than or subordinate to God, but God himself.  Heretics in the early church fought against this doctrine; modern-day cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses still rail against it.  But the deity of Christ is one of the fundamental truths of biblical religion.  Jaroslav Pelikan explains this well in the first volume of his Christian tradition series (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [100-600]):

“Amid the varieties of metaphor in which they conceived the meaning of salvation, all [early] Christians shared the conviction that salvation was the work of no being less than the Lord of heaven and earth.  Amid all the varieties of response to the Gnostic systems, Christians were sure that the Redeemer did not belong to some lower order of divine reality, but was God himself.  The oldest surviving sermon of the Christian church after the New Testament opened with the words: ‘Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of the judge of living and dead. And we ought not to belittle our salvation; for when we belittle him, we expect also to receive little.’”

“The oldest surviving account of the death of a Christian martyr contained the declaration: ‘It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ…or to worship any other.  For him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs…we cherish.’  The oldest surviving pagan report about the church described the Christians as gathering before sunrise and ‘singing a hymn to Christ as though to [a] god.’  The oldest surviving liturgical prayer of the church was a prayer addressed to Christ: ‘Our Lord, come!’  Clearly it was the message of what the church believed and taught that ‘God’ was an appropriate name for Jesus Christ.”

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [100-600], Chicago (The University of Chicago Press, 1971),173.

shane lems

O The Sweet Exchange!

Here are some great words from a late second century AD Christian tract/treatise called the Epistle to Diognetus (10:2-5).

“Oh the surpassing kindness and love of God! He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. …In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?  O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”

The above quote is found in The Apostolic Fathers 3rd edition; ed. and trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 711.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Creation and Cosmology in the Early Church

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      The early church fathers and apologists spent much time debating and debunking the prevalent pagan cosmologies of their day.  Most of the cosmologies back then essentially denied that God made the world out of nothing.  Of course, this debate is still going on; modern Christian theologians and philosophers are still pointing out the weaknesses and inconsistencies in creation accounts that deny Scripture’s explanation of ex nihilo.

In the early 4th century in Gaul a Christian teacher and rhetorician named Lactantius (who taught Constantine’s son Crispus) was engaged in polemics against pagan philosophies and cosmologies.  Among other things, Lactantius wrote “The Divine Institutes,” and “On the Workmanship of God.”  In these treatises and books Lactantius often pointed out the absurdity of Greco-Roman creation theories and stories.  Here’s Lactantius refuting one view that reminds me of today’s “Big Bang” theory:

“They who do not admit that the world was made by divine providence, either say that it is composed of first principles coming together at random, or that it suddenly came into existence by nature, but hold, as Stranton does, that nature has in itself the power of production and of diminution, but that it has neither sensibility nor figure, so that we may understand that all things were produced spontaneously, without any artificer or author.  But this happens to those who are ignorant of the truth, that they devise anything, rather than perceive that which the nature of the subject requires.”

“…But Nature, which they suppose to be, as it were, the mother of all things, if it has not a mind, will effect nothing, will contrive nothing; for where there is no reflection there is neither motion nor efficacy.”

What should we believe about creation? Lactantius said this:

“[We must] perceive with the mind that there is but one Supreme God, whose power and providence made the world from the beginning, and afterwards continues to govern it.

To be sure, things were different back then; there isn’t a specific 1:1 comparison to those debates and the ones happening today.  But generally speaking, Christians in the early church defended a biblical view of creation against pagan views – and this is something Christians are still doing and need to keep doing today.  Even though people suppress the truth and hate it, our goal should be to stand on biblical, creational truth with our forefathers.

The above quotes are found in Lactantius’ essay “On the Anger of God,” found in volume 7 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

shane lems

Essays On The OPC: A Brief Review

Confident of Better Things I recently picked up a copy of this 2011 publication: Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (ed. John Muether and Danny Olinger).  This is a thick book (500 pages) and I haven’t read every essay in it, but I would like to point it out to our readers.

As already noted, this book is a collection of articles and essays gathered to celebrate the 75th year of the OPC (1936-2011).  The editors put it this way:

“…We confess that there is no perfect church, that churches as well as individuals are guilty of sin and liable to error.  ‘OPC’ does not stand for the ‘Only Perfect Church.’  If anything, the OPC is the church of the broken heart.  That is, the OPC carries with it the belief that the way to Christ is found through the conviction of sin.  The good news is that sin is dealt with once for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then a new and joyous life follows” (p. 1).

Around 25 men contributed to this collection, including Richard Gaffin, John Fesko, Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, and Richard Muller (among many other able scholars, pastors, and teachers). The book has five main sections: 1) History, 2) Theology, 3) Christian Education, 4) Mission of the Church, and 5) Ecumenicity.   Each section contains around five essays.

This book isn’t a detailed history of the OPC – although it does contain some OPC history.  Between these covers you’ll find the authors explaining the truths of Scripture, the doctrines of Reformation theology, the power of preaching, the motivation for missions, the beauty of the gospel, and the importance of the confessions.  More specifically, here are the titles of a few essays: “The Legacy of Charles Hodge,” “Tongues Today?,” “Was Adam Historical?” “Catechetical Instruction in the OPC,” “Called to the Ministry,” and “The Ruling Elder in Church Planting,” among others.  So far I’ve enjoyed the article on tongues by Gaffin and the discussion of missions by Mark Bube.  I’m also looking forward to reading the chapter on redemptive historical hermeneutics as well as Godfrey’s article on the OPC/URCNA relationship (perhaps he’ll rightly tell the URC to aim towards a more Presbyterian polity!  Stay tuned….).  Actually, most of the articles look like good reading.  I hope to read them over the course of the summer.

If you’re interested, Confident of Better Things is priced fairly (around $14.00).  It is well worth the investment.  I’m thankful the editors and writers worked together to give the church a fine resource – not just for those in the OPC, but others who appreciate solid, confessional Reformed church piety, practice, and worship.

rev shane lems