…In Studying Things of No Use (Calvin)

Institutes of the Christian Religion

When it comes to the fact that God has revealed himself in his Word, we do well to remember that what he revealed to us there is what he wants us to know about him and faith in him.  The Word is sufficient for our theology, our faith, and our practice.  We may not add to it, nor may we go beyond it.  We humbly accept what God has revealed and we stick with that revelation.  We won’t – and can’t! – have all the answers to all the questions we ask about God, his Word, and other doctrinal or theological things we might wonder about.  John Calvin discussed this point very well in one section of his Institutes.  These are the words of a humble expositor and interpreter of Scripture:

…Let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this — in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered.

A second rule is, that in reading the Scriptures we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use. And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge.

Wherefore, if we would be duly wise, we must renounce those vain babblings of idle men, concerning the nature, ranks, and number of angels, without any authority from the Word of God. I know that many fasten on these topics more eagerly, and take greater pleasure in them than in those relating to daily practice. But if we decline not to be the disciples of Christ, let us not decline to follow the method which he has prescribed. In this way, being contented with him for our master, we will not only refrain from, but even feel averse to, superfluous speculations which he discourages….

…The duty of a Theologian…is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 193–194.

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

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God Told Me!? (A Critique of Mysticism)

What do you do when a friend says, “God told me I needed to go on a diet,” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me last night and said you should make more friends”?  How do we even begin to respond?  It’s not easy to respond to such comments; it takes patience and wisdom!  If you’ve heard these statements before, you might appreciate Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this kind of “God-told-me” mysticism.  In the paragraphs below, Lloyd-Jones says these are his main critiques of mysticism: 1) it is claiming continuing inspiration, 2) it devalues Scripture, 3) it devalues the person and work of Christ, 4) it focuses on the Lord’s work in us so much that it forgets His work for us, 5) it is weak on the doctrine of sin, 6) it is entirely subjective, 7) it tends to extremism and fanaticism.  Here are his comments:

“The main criticism of the evangelical can be put in this form: It is a claim to a continuing of inspiration.  The mystic in a sense is claiming that God is dealing as directly with him as He was with the Old Testament prophets; he claims God is dealing with him as He did with the Apostles. …The mystic says he has received a new and fresh message and that he is in a state of direct inspiration…. Now we believe that God gave a message to the prophets, He gave a message to the Apostles; but we say that because God has done that, it is unnecessary that He should do that directly with us.

“My second criticism would be that mysticism of necessity puts the Scriptures on one side and makes them more or less unnecessary.  You will always find that persons who have a mystical tendency never talk very much about the Bible.  …They say, ‘No, I do not follow the Bible reading plans; I find one verse is generally enough for me.  I take one verse and then I begin to meditate.’  …He does not need this objective revelation; he wants something to start him in his meditation and he will then receive it as coming directly from God; he depreciates the value of the Scriptures.”

“I do not hesitate to go further and say that mysticism, as a whole, even tends to make our Lord Himself unnecessary.  …There have been people who have been mystical and who claim that their souls have immediate access to God.  They say that just as they are, they have but to relax and let go and let God speak to them and He will do so; they do not mention the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…The danger of mysticism is to concentrate so much on the Lord’s work in us that it forgets the Lord’s work for us.  …It is so concerned about this immediate work upon the soul that it quite forgets the preliminary work that had to be done before anything could be done upon the soul.  It tends to forget the cross and the absolute necessity of the atoning death of Christ before fellowship with God is in any way possible.”

“We can go further….  Mysticism is never very strong on the doctrine of sin.  The mystic tends to say, ‘…If you want to know God just as you are, you have to start getting into communion with Him, and He will speak to you and give you all the blessings.’  They never mention the doctrine of sin in the sense that the guilt of sin is such a terrible thing that nothing but the coming of the Son of God into the world and the bearing of our sins in His own body….”

“Another very serious criticism of mysticism is that it always leaves us without a standard.  Let us imagine I follow the mystic way.  I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me?  …How can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics?  If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I test my experiences?  How do I prove the Scriptures; how do I know I am not perhaps being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God?  I have no standard.”

“In other words, my last criticism is that mysticism always tends to fanaticism and excesses.  If you put feelings before understanding, you are bound to end in that, because you have nothing to check your experiences with, and you will have no reason to control your sensations and susceptibilities.”

Lloyd Jones goes on to mention that the Scriptures are the “only authority and final standard with regard to these matters, with regard to a knowledge of God.”  He said, “the evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God. …It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.”

This entire section is very much worth reading.  It’s found on pages 89-92 of Life in Christ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Dispensationalism, Theonomy, and Biblical Theology (Lints)

The Fabric of Theology It is very important to remember that there is historical progression in Scripture. The Bible is a historical book that records stories from the beginning of the world to the 1st century AD (and beyond, if you think of the prophecies).  But the Bible isn’t a regular history book; it is what we call redemptive history.  That means the Bible contains the inspired history of God’s redemption of his people.  Hand in hand with this truth is the fact that there is also a progression of God’s revelation in Scripture.  As time marches on, God slowly but surely reveals more of himself to his people.  There is progression in God’s revelation from Genesis to Revelation.  These are some assumptions of biblical theology gleaned from Scripture.

Richard Lints does a nice job explaining the importance of bibilcal theology in chapter seven of The Fabric of Theology. He wrote this in 1993, so it might be a bit more nuanced today, but it is still a helpful quote:

“A theological framework that fails to capture the ‘organic unity’ in this flow of redemption and revelatory history will likely be guilty of unnecessary abstraction from the text of Scripture.  Normally one of two errors is committed by modern evangelical interpreters who take this route.  Some overstress the continuity between the epochs (a la theonomy); others overstress the discontinuity of the epocs (a la dispensationalism).  I concur with Edmund Clowney’s observation that ‘modern dispensationalism rightly recognizes that there are great divisions in the history of redemption; it errs in failing to grasp the organic relation of these successive eras, as the developing manifestations of one gracious design.'”

“The theonomic movement rightfully recognizes the underlying unity of the Old and New Testaments but fails to notice the organic progression present between the two Testaments.  While I cannot settle all of the exegetical questions that arise in this context, I do think it is important to remember that an interpretive framework built on the assumption of divine authorship in history will seek to make clear the organic relations among the divergent epochs of the Bible.  This need not result in a bland uniformity or essential contradictions of principles across epochs; rather, it should help the reader to see the overarching purpose progressively revealed through the different epochs of the Scriptures.”

Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 278.

Shane Lems

“Comprehend Him Ye Cannot”

When Thomas Boston talked about the Christian’s duty to love God, he said that we need to know God in order to truly love him.  But Boston was careful to explain this knowledge by using a great phrase: “Comprehend him ye cannot, but apprehend him ye must, as he has revealed himself.” Richard Muller summarizes this doctrine well in volume three of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics:

God is not known through his essence – but “through his effects and his names, by which he wills to reveal his virtues to us” (Cocceius, Summa Theol).  The nature of God can be known, then, “according to the manner of divine Revelation, and the measure of our knowledge” and is to be discussed in terms of the name of God and in terms of the definition (Ibid.).

The exposition of doctrine, moreover, proceeds on the premises that whatever is said or predicated of God is not God himself – for God is ineffable – but rather what the human mind in its limitation can apprehend about God. Indeed, a distinction must be made between “comprehension” and “apprehension,” inasmuch as we cannot have an “adequate” idea of God in the sense that we know and understand God fully or are able “fully to describe” the divine perfections, but we can have “some imperfect or inadequate ideas of what surpasses our understanding and we can have “a full conviction that God hath those infinite perfections, which no creature can comprehend” (Ridgley, Body of Divinity)

Thus, language about God proceeds cautiously, frequently according to a negative manner; as when God is called “incomprehensible” or “infinite.” These identifications of God are intended to “remove far from him the imperfections of creatures” (Trelcatius, Scholastic Methods).

In other words, our human minds are limited, darkened by sin, and finite. Therefore we cannot fully comprehend God nor can we perfectly describe and explain him.  Even our best theology is imperfect.  However, because he has revealed himself (in creation but more specifically in his Word and in Jesus), we can apprehend him and know him in a true and saving way.  It’s not because we deserve it or because we’re smart, super intelligent, or supremely wise.  It’s because he is gracious.  It is his good pleasure to reveal himself to his people and give them the hearts to believe his Son (cf. Matt. 11:27, Luke 10:22, & 2 Cor. 4:6)!

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 165.

Shane Lems

Applying Revelation

Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation Dennis Johnson’s commentary on Revelation (Triumph of the Lamb) is one of my favorites because it is scholarly yet readable, detailed yet clear, and expositional yet practical.  In chapter 15 Johnson asks and answers the application question: “What should this book [Revelation] do to us?”  Here are his answers summarized and edited:

1) Revelation helps us see our situation in its true perspective.  We are living between two worlds: the first heaven and earth, which are destined for destruction; and the new creation, to which we already belong as God’s holy city, the bride now being beautified for her Husband.  Jesus’ Revelation to the churches through John is given to help us navigate the paradoxes built into the ‘betweenness’ of our situation.  Revelation is also brutally frank in revealing the call to follow Christ as a call to suffering and even death.  More than this, Jesus shows us that his victory over the enemy has blazed the trail for our victory.

2) Revelation helps us see our enemies in their true colors.  Revelation calls the church, Jesus’ witness, to exercise wise discernment, lest we be taken in by an impressive image that masks an ugly and empty reality.  The enemies include the beast (the power of government), the false prophet (religious deception), and the harlot (the idolatrous allure of material affluence and social acceptance).

3) Revelation helps us see our Champion in his true glory.  Whenever Revelation works on us as God intends it to, we trust, love, and fear Jesus more.  The purpose of its graphic portrayals of the dragon’s heavy artillery is not to haunt us with nightmares or keep us awake with night sweats.  It is to direct our eyes and hearts away from ourselves, to focus instead on Christ, the seed of the woman who crushed the ancient serpent’s head and now sits on God’s throne.  He is the lion of Judah, the slain Lamb, the captain of heaven’s armies, the faithful witness, the husband who lives his bride, etc.

4) Revelation helps us see ourselves in our true beauty.  Jesus loves his church.  Of course he is not blind to her blemishes, nor will he leave them untreated to mar his brides complexion when our wedding day arrives.  But Revelation shows us the lengths to which the Lamb has gone and will go to make us the holy city in whom he will dwell forever.  Christ loves his church and binds himself to her with bonds that no enemy from without and no failure of ours from within can sever.”

5) Revelation helps us endure suffering, stay pure, and bear witness to Christ.  The first century churches that John was writing to faced suffering and even martyrdom.  He wrote to encourage them to press on through suffering.  He also wrote to warn us of the devil’s appealing power and alluring guise, helping us fight spiritual seduction.  Finally, Revelation keeps us from withdrawing into a religious ghetto and keeping the gospel a secret.   The church is called to be Jesus’ witnesses, fearless in engaging the culture because we are confident in his care for as long as our mission on earth lasts.

This is an excellent summary of how Revelation applies to us, affects us, and encourages us in the Christian faith.  I recommend reading this entire excellent chapter of this excellent book: Triumph of the Lamb by Dennis Johnson.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Walking On The Sea In Royal Freedom

Product Details In III.1 of Church Dogmatics Karl Barth spends quite a bit of time discussing the text of Genesis 1 and the days of creation.  In his discussion of day 3 and the separating of the waters from land (Gen. 1:9-10), Barth elaborates on the “waters” in a fascinating (sort of) redemptive historical way (III.i.IX.41.1).  Notice how he goes from Genesis 1 to Paul’s ministry, back to Genesis 1, and then to Revelation.

“It is self-evident that in this submission and limitation the roaring of the sea must also have a part in the triumphant song: ‘The Lord reigneth” (1 Chron. 16:32).  On the other hand, it is certainly no coincidence that according to the Old Testament the Israelites were not a seafaring people like the Phoenicians, although the tribes of Zebulun, Asher, and Dan had lived by the seashore and in havens for ships (Jud. 5:17, Gen. 49:13, cf. Deut. 33:18).  Of an expedition such as that ascribed to Solomon in 1 King. 19:28ff, we can say only that (like his new and positive attitude to the horse) it is one of the extraordinary and even – we must say – Messianic features of this immediate son of  David.”

“We are told in 1 Kings 22:49ff that a similar venture on the part of Jehoshaphat immediately came to grief.  And in view of its starting point and disastrous end, Jonah’s voyage is no exception to the rule.  The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage (Ps. 107:22ff) with desert-wandering, captivity, and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us.”

“It is thus the more noteworthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are his walking on the sea in royal freedom, and his commanding the waves and storm to be still by his Word.  And when we are finally given in Acts 27-28 an accurate description, down to the last nautical details, of Paul’s stormy but ultimately successful voyage from Caesarea through Crete and Malta to Puteoli, it is certainly not done merely for the sake of historical completeness or out of curiosity, but because the New Testament author, too, knows the sign of the sea and sees in this occurrence an emulation of Solomon, Jehoshophat, and Jonah, a confirmation of the hymn of praise in Psalm 107:13ff, and finally, in connection with the miracles of Jesus himself on the sea, the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy concerning God’s lordship over the dangerous sea, and therefore a confirmation of Genesis 1:9-10.”

“In the new heaven and the new earth, as we learn from Rev. 21:1, there will be no more sea; i.e., man will be fully and finally freed from each and every threat to his salvation, and God from each and every threat to his glory.”

K. Barth, Church Dogmatics III.I, p. 148-9.

shane lems

Revelation: Acts and Speech

Fundamentalism and the Word of God If you haven’t read Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God, I’d suggest putting it on your “to read” list.  Here’s a section from it that explains how God reveals himself in his acts (i.e. the Exodus) and also in speech (i.e. the Prophets) – and these go together, as Packer notes.  Packer’s helpful argument also has to do with the necessity of Scripture.

“…According to Scripture, God reveals himself to men both by exercising power for them and by teaching truth to them.  The two activities are not antithetical, but complementary.  …Leave man to guess God’s mind and purpose, and he will guess wrong; he can know it only by being told it.  Moreover, the whole purpose of God’s mighty acts is to bring man to know him by faith; and Scripture knows no foundation for faith but the spoken word of God, inviting our trust in him on the basis of what he has done for us.  Where there is no word from God, faith cannot be.  Therefore, verbal revelation – that is to say, propositional revelation, the disclosure by God of truths about himself – is no mere appendage to his redemptive activity, but a necessary part of it.  This being so, the inspiring of an authoritative exposition of his redemptive acts in history ought to be seen as itself one of those redemptive acts, as necessary a link in the chain of his saving purposes as any of the events with which the exposition deals.”

“The need for verbal revelation appears most clearly when we consider the person and work of Christ.  His life and death was the clearest and fullest revelation of God that ever was or could be made.  Yet it could never have been understood without explanation.  Whoever could have guessed, without being told, that the man Jesus was God incarnate, that he created the world in which he was crucified, that by dying a criminal’s death he put away the sins of mankind, and that now, though gone from our sight, he lives forever to bring penitent sinners to his Father?  And who can come to faith in Christ if he knows none of this?  No considerations could show more plainly the complete inability of man to ‘make do’ in his religion without a spoken word from God (p. 92).”

J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

shane lems