The Self-Evidencing Power of the Bible (Cunningham)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth William Cunningham (d. 1861) was a Scottish pastor and also a professor of theology and church history.  Some of his lectures were published after he died, including a series of lectures on the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here’s a short section from “Lecture XXII” which was a commentary on WCF 1.5.  These comments make me think of Psalm 119, which constantly tells us that the Word is effective for helping us walk God’s way and avoid sin:

“…Certain it is, from the experience of all in every age who have made the attempt, that the more men study the Bible with diligence and humility, and with prayer for the divine blessing and guidance, the more clearly will they see through it all the traces of God’s presence and agency, the more fully will they experience its self-evidencing power, and the more thoroughly will they be persuaded by what they see and feel, as well as by submission to the authority of God clearly revealing this truth by his apostle, that it is all given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness.”

“Believers are liable to be assailed by temptations to error as well as to sin, and they are not always exempted from occasional temptations even to the fatal error of infidelity.  And they are commonly enabled to resist these temptations, and to hold fast their profession, through the Spirit opening up to them more fully, and impressing upon them more deeply, what they may have previously seen of the self-evidencing power of the Bible, and what they may have formerly noticed of the efficacy of its doctrines and statements upon themselves, in changing their natures, in enlightening their understandings, in sanctifying their hearts, and in regulating their conduct. Thus they are persuaded that the Bible could not possibly have been a cunningly devised fable, that it must have come from God, and that it is only by cleaving to it as a light unto their feet, and a lamp unto their path, that they can be guided in the way everlasting.”

William Cunningham, “Lecture XXII” in Thy Word is Still Truth, p. 520.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

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

Should We Take the Bible Literally?

The historic Christian faith is a faith that takes the Bible very seriously.  For example, in Reformed theology, we say God’s Word is sufficient, necessary, clear, and authoritative (among other things).  But should we take the Bible literally?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, we take it literally in what it says and teaches; we shouldn’t argue with God’s Word or sit in judgment over it.  But we realize there is figurative language in Scripture.  For example, we don’t believe that God literally has wings (Ps. 91:4).  So we do and we don’t take the Bible literally.

But there’s a better way to say this.  D. Brent Sandy does a nice job in explaining “literalness” as he comments on Isaiah 2:4 (They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. NIV):

“These words could be understood to say that each person who has a sword or a spear will reshape it by pounding it into a plow or pruning hook (good luck!).  That would be a very strict literalness.  Or a reader may conclude that ‘beat’ refers to going to a blacksmith who will use fire to soften the iron before refashioning it.  Having a blacksmith do it would be a little less literal.  Another step away from strict literalness would be for those who have any instrument of aggression to transform it, by whatever means necessary, into an instrument of agriculture.  The statement is still literal, though the specific words of the text are pointing to a meaning beyond the surface meanings of the words.

Or if we take the author to be saying that political peace will be acheived between all nations – or even simply that God will restore order on the earth – the figurative meaning may be predominant, but all literalness has not been lost.  Only when we reach the point of denying that anything will happen as a result of these words have we moved completely away from literal meaning.  At that point to be nonliteral would mean to be nonhistorical (nonactual).  In other words, the literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture is not a simple black-or-white issue.

…Unfortunately, the uses of the word ‘literal’ become confusing, in the minds of both those who make pronouncements and those who hear pronouncements.”

These are helpful comments.  There are large sections of Scripture that contain figurative language: the poetry in the Psalter, the oracles of the prophets, and the visions in Revelation (to name a few).  We shouldn’t take all Scripture as strictly or woodenly literal since it’s not meant to be taken that way.  While we should submit to every part of Scripture, and view all Scripture as God-breathed, inspired, and infallible, we shouldn’t read it all in the same literal manner.  It would be quite a mess if we did!

The above quote is found on pages 3940 of Sandy’s book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Abandon Facts but Keep Feelings? (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen Liberalism is not new.  The liberal seminary magazines I get in the mail are printed in full color and talk about smartphones, laptops, and podcasts, but the liberalism in them pre-dates today’s technology.  The magazine I got in the mail last week doesn’t mention the cross, sin or the resurrection, and it barely mentions Jesus or the Bible.  But it does talk about social justice, “Christian” art, interfaith dialogues, and debt.  This kind of liberalism has been around quite some time.

J. Gresham Machen and others had to deal with liberalism a century ago.  Back then the liberals didn’t mind letting go of facts as long as they could keep their religious feelings.  In other words, it didn’t matter to them if Jesus actually came back to life.  What was important was that they could feel him living on in their hearts.  Machen addressed this false Christianity quite well:

“It seems to be such a promising solution of our apologetic difficulties just to say that science and religion belong in two entirely different spheres and can never by any chance come into conflict.  It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals.”

“But in reality these tactics are quite disastrous.  You effect thus a strategic retreat; you retreat into …an inner line of defense whence you think that science can never dislodge you.  You get down into your pragamtist dugout and listen comfortably to the muffled sound of the warfare being carried on above by those who are old-fashioned enough to be interested in truth; you think that whatever creedal changes, whatever intellectual battle there may be, you at least are safe.  You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!”

“But do not comfort yourself.  The enemy in this warfare is good at mopping up captured trenches; he has in his mechanistic psychologists a very efficient mopping up squad.  He will soon drive you out of your refuge; he will destroy whatever decency and liberty you thought you had retained; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost, and that your only real hope lay not into retreating into some anti-intellectualistic dugout but in fighting bravely to prevent the initial capture of the trench.”

“No, the battle between naturalism and supernaturalism, between mechanism and liberty, has to be fought sooner or later; and I do not believe that there is any advantage in letting the enemy choose the ground upon which it shall be fought.  The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense; a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak; our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word.”

Exactly.  Abandoning the facts of the faith (like the flood, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the monarchy, the miracles of Christ, his death and resurrection, etc.) may seem like a peaceful move, but it only exposes one to the head-on assaults of Satan.  Machen is right: “Our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word,” which gives the historical, factual accounts of God’s supernatural intervention to redeem his people from sin through Christ’s cross.  Under that banner, the Christian can bravely fight the battle!

The above quote is found on page 362 of Machen’s Shorter Writings.

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

 

The Danger of Biblicism

Biblicism is a problem in the conservative Christian church today.  By “biblicism” I mean an over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.  Biblicism is a cousin of legalism since both are often quite rigid, demanding, and unforgiving.  Some examples of biblicism would be an inflexible adherence to things like courting, abstinence from all alcohol, and insistence on a certain way to run a home (to name just a few).  Biblicism often doubts the value of general revelation and sometimes views the Bible as a science textbook.  I’ve also noticed that many biblicists are self-taught and sometimes do not like creeds and confessions.  Biblicism can lead to many problems in a church’s life and in a Christian’s life.

Terry Johnson has a helpful section on biblicism in his book on the five solas called The Case for Traditional Protestantism.  Here’s part of it:

“Believers must not fall into an unwarranted biblicism which, in the name of biblical authority, narrows the scope of its application to only that which the Bible explicitly states and not to that which it implies as well.  This is a danger when the nature of Scripture is not understood.  There is not a verse for every occasion.  The Bible is not a book of detailed causistry providing answers for every imaginable ethical question.  No doubt some have wished that the Bible were such a book….  Yet it still applies to every occasion.  How so?  It reveals general principles which, to be grasped, must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and, to be applied concretely in life, must be joined with reason and wisdom.  The need of wisdom can be illustrated by this fact – almost all of life is lived between the lines of explicit biblical commands.”

“We can summarize our point in this way: The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal to us the truth and will of God when read in conjunction with biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom can be defined as understanding the nature of things.  To do so I must know the ‘sacred writings,’ ‘which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Johnson later notes how a person may know what the Bible says but not really understand the nature of things and therefore misapply the Bible’s teaching.  The farmer doesn’t plant in the spring because the Bible commands it.  “He does so because he correctly percieves the nature of things and acts in harmony with it.”  The wise Christian understands general revelation and special revelation, and conforms his life “to the reality that both books (nature and the Bible) reveal.”

Yes, the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore general revelation.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a Bible verse for everything.  It doesn’t mean we can ignore context and flatten out the Bible.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to use wisdom in all areas of life.  Biblicism sometimes sounds good because it uses Scripture so much, but we have to remember there is a wrong way to use it!  And typically, as Augustine said, the person who has himself as a teacher has a fool for a student (cf. Prov. 1:7, 12:15, and 28:24). So we need to humbly listen to wise counsel and fervently pray for wisdom ourselves, which – thankfully! – God gives to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6).

The above quotes are found in chapter two of The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Divine “Hunches” and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Why are Reformed Christians not charismatic or pentecostal?  How does a Reformed view of Scripture lead away from believing in continuing revelation from God?  Why don’t Reformed preachers and teachers say things like “Last night God told me….”?  Paul Woolley answered these questions well in his 1946 essay called “The Relevancy of Scripture”:

“…Scripture contains all the information which a man needs in order to set forth the way of salvation.  Further, the Bible contains all the guidance which is needed for the continuous living of the Christian life.  It is completely sufficient at this point.  If there are absolute rules which must be followed, the Bible states them.  In the absence of such rules the Christian is at liberty to follow a course or courses which accord with the general principles presented in Scripture.”

“There is one very important consequence of this fact [of the sufficiency of Scripture].  God does not today guide people directly without using the Scriptures.  There are no divinely given ‘hunches.’  God does not give people direct mental impressions to do this or that.  People do not hear God’s voice speaking within them.  There is no immediate and direct unwritten communication between God and the individual human being.  If the Scriptures are actually sufficient, such communication is unnecessary.  On the other hand, if such communications were actually being made, every Christian would be a potential author of Scripture.  We would only need to write down accurately what God said to us, and we would legitimately be adding to the Bible, for such writings would be the Word of God.  Many people have thought they were writing new Bibles.  Many more people have thought that God spoke to them directly.  But when these supposed revelations are examined, what a strange mass of nonsense, contradiction, and trviality this so-called Word of God proves to be.  Many of my readers could construct a pot-pourri of such supposed revelations from the accounts which they have heard themselves – and what a sorry mess they would make!”

Paul Woolley, “The Relevancy of Scripture” in The Infallible Word, p. 191-192.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Servants Bowing Before the Word (Monod)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth  Adolphe Monod was a French preacher in the first half of the 19th century.  After serving as a pastor for some years, he became very ill and could no longer preach.  Yet even on his sick bed he would write sermons and preach sermons to the people who came to visit.  These sermons were later put into book form: Farewell to His Friends and the Church.  I was reading sections of Monod’s work recently and was impressed at how he talked about Scripture.  Here are a few helpful quotes:

“I commend to you, my dear friends, the Word of God as something for constant, in-depth study and meditation.  It will lift us up above everything else.  It will, through Jesus Christ, be the strength of our lives, the joy of our hearts, and our powerful consolation in life and in death.”

“When Scripture proclaims God’s will or the way of salvation or the great doctrines of sin and grace, and of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what it tells us is no less true and no less certain than if heaven were opened above us at this very moment and the voice of God resounded, as it once did at Sinai, saying these same things to us.”

“Oh, how can we surround this book [the Bible] with enough attention and respect?  No doubt Scripture is not the truth that saves us, but it is the road to that truth.  It is not salvation, but it is the book that reveals our salvation, a salvation we would never be able to know without it.  Through Scripture and in proportion to our growth in understanding it, we will also become better acquainted with Jesus, the Savior of our souls.”

“The greatest of all God’s servants are those who bow before that Word.  Saint Paul, David, Luther, Calvin were jealous to humble themselves in the dust before it, and if possible they would have gone still lower.”

These quotes can be found in Thy Word Is Still Truth, chapter 35.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI