By His Sovereign Will

In 1559 Antoine Chandieu and John Calvin wrote the first draft of the French Confession (also called the Gallican Confession). That same year the Synod of Paris edited and adopted it. In 1571 it was revised and adopted by the National Synod in La Rochelle, France; therefore sometimes this confession is called the “Confession of Rochelle.” It’s really an excellent Reformed confession. Here’s a comforting explanation of providence from article 8:

VIII. We believe that he [the triune God] not only created all things, but that he governs and directs them, disposing and ordaining by his sovereign will all that happens in the world; not that he is the author of evil, or that the guilt of it can be imputed to him, as his will is the sovereign and infallible rule of all right and justice; but he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty.

And thus, confessing that the providence of God orders all things, we humbly bow before the secrets which are hidden to us, without questioning what is above our understanding; but rather making use of what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture for our peace and safety, inasmuch as God, who has all things in subjection to him, watches over us with a Father’s care, so that not a hair of our heads shall fall without his will. And yet he restrains the devils and all our enemies, so that they can not harm us without his leave.

 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 364.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Popes of Evangelicalism (Lints)

(This is a re-post from December, 2015)

I always think it’s ironic and comical when a Christian mocks or discredits creeds and confessions then turns around to favorably quote popular evangelical leaders on social media. While social media is new, this anti-confessional and pro-popular leader mindset is not new. It was a central characteristic of 19th century American revivalist religion. For example, Charles Finney talked said it was “highly ridiculous” for a church to recognize and utilize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Finney called the Westminster Confession a “dead Pope;” he said “It is better to have a living than a dead Pope.” Richard Lints explained this well in 1993:

“The revivalist located the ‘living Pope’ not in Rome but in the human heart. The experience of the Holy Spirit became the lens through which the works and words of God were interpreted. The work of the Spirit was severed from the confessions and creeds of the church in such a manner that an individual led by the Spirit was considered to be directly and immediately in touch with the meaning of Scripture. The work of the Spirit was not mediated by the community of past believers….”

“A curious effect of this emphasis on the subjective leading of the Spirit was the growth in power of the ‘popular popes’ of evangelicalism. Though highly individualistic in their approach to salvation and populist in their biblical interpretation, populist Bible teachers and preachers served to draw people together in a mass movement largely through the strength of their personal popularity. As Mark Noll puts it, ‘Evangelical interpretation assigned first place to popular approval.’”

“The right of private interpretation that they promoted can be understood as a desire for freedom from opposing viewpoints. It would seem that the early evangelicals were not so much interested in removing all human authority as they were in choosing human authorities with whom they agreed. And once they found these individuals, they were willing to invest them with a great deal of de facto authority.”

There’s another downside to this trend/movement:

“A striking result of the rise of the popular leader was the displacement of the theologian from the place of preeminence in the evangelical movement. The new leaders of the movement were popularizers of the gospel message, revivalists, and Bible conference preachers. This tradition persists today; the theological leadership of the movement is provided by preachers who travel the circuit of popular conservative Bible conferences” (p. 34-35).

This is not a great picture of evangelicalism: it doesn’t have a Pope like Rome, but it does typically have a pope within (the heart) and a pope without (a celebrity pastor).  Remember this next time someone criticizes the confessions and gushes over some quote of a popular preacher!

The above quotes are from Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Christian Doctrine and Experience (Machen)

God Transcendent Sometimes Christians get doctrine and experience mixed up.  For example, suppose a person came to faith by experiencing the kindness of Jesus.   Then suppose the same person started teaching that the essence of conversion is experiencing Jesus’ kindness.   It is biblically true and wonderful that Jesus is kind.  But it isn’t helpful – or 100% biblical – to make one’s experience of this truth the center of a doctrinal definition.  J. G. Machen talked about this from a slightly different angle in a radio address he gave just under 100 years ago.  The title of the written manuscript is “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”

In this address he said,

“…Christian doctrine is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches.  At the foundation of Christian doctrine is the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Here’s how he explains the statement:

That is often forgotten by those who today undertake to write confessional statements. Let us give expression to our Christian experience, they say, in forms better suited to the times in which we are living than are the older creeds of the church. So they sit down and concoct various forms of words, which they represent as being on a plane with the great creeds of Christendom.

When they do that, they are simply forgetting what the creeds of Christendom are. The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. Far from the subject matter of the creeds being derived from Christian experience, it is Christian experience which is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God. Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway on which the great Christian creeds moved; rather, they are moving in an exactly opposite direction. What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine of which I spoke last Sunday. Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.

The first prerequisite, then, for any advance in Christian doctrine is that those who would engage in it should believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible and should endeavor to make their doctrine simply a presentation of what the Bible teaches.

These are very helpful statements to keep in mind when thinking doctrinally and writing doctrinally.  We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths.   Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective.  But God’s word is objective and foundational.  So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths.  If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people.  And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one  example of application.

Speaking of confessions, one reason I very much appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian standards is because they do typically give an objective, well rounded summary of Christian truths.

You can read Machen’s entire address in chapter 16 of God Transcendant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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

Sola Scriptura, Creeds, and Confessions

From Wittenberg to Geneva to London, the Reformers stressed the centrality and authority of Holy Scripture.  They argued from Scripture that Scripture alone is God’s necessary Word to us for our salvation and for living the Christian life.  However, the Reformers also stressed the need for and importance of creeds and confessions.  In other words, the slogan “Sola Scriptura” does not imply that Christians have no need for creeds or confessions.  Lutheran scholars Robert Kolb and Charles Arand explain it this way:

“All Christians have recognized that sinful  minds and emotions misinterpret the Word of the Lord and twist it to their own devices.  So all Christians always have some summary of God’s Word to help guide public teaching and the congregation’s public confession of faith.  Scripture is indeed a primary authority for most Christians, but all Christians have secondary authorities alongside or directly under it.  Early in the church’s history the practice of identifying the church through a statement of faith, a creed, flourished.

There are, to be sure, fellowships within the larger body of Christ that claim to have no creed but the Bible.  Yet such groups automatically reject certain interpretations of Scripture and guide their people without discussion or contemplation to a specific construal of individual biblical passages.

Whether formally codified and recognized or only informally put to use (and thus often in more arbitrary fashion), these secondary authorities assist believers in formulating their understanding of the biblical message and provide a vehicle for public confession of the faith and regulation of the church’s life and teaching.

“…By the end of the sixteenth century, the majority of German Lutherans had settled on the ‘Book of Concord’ as their standard for public confession, their ‘symbol,’ in the sense of the Greek word used by the ancient church for ‘creed.’  They called its documents [ ‘the Lutheran confessions’ because Philip Melanchthon had named his Lutheran creed, prepared in Augsburg as an explanation of Lutheran reform and a statement of Lutheran adherence to the universal tradition of the church, a ‘confession.’”

Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p169-170.

shane l ems