Doctrine and Practice Walk Together (Van Mastricht)

 I recently got a copy of Petrus Van Mastricht’s newly translated Theoretical-Practical Theology: Prolegomena (vol. 1)I agree with Michael Horton: this is a remarkable gem!  Van Mastricht was a Dutch Reformed theologian who was quite influential in his day and beyond.  Not only is his work solidly theological and biblical, it is also very practical, as you can tell from the title.  It is true that sometimes Reformed theology is taught in a dry manner with little or no application.  However, I very much agree with those like Van Mastricht who say that theology is eminently practical and applicable.  Below are a few quotes of his that show how theology and practice go hand in hand.  It’s also worth mentioning that Van Mastricht often referred to Paul’s words to Titus in 1:1, where the apostle mentions the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness (NASB). 

…Theology must be taught according to a certain method, and it must be the kind of method in which theory and practice always walk in step together.  In fact, they must walk together in such a way that theory precedes and practice follows in every one of theology’s articles. (p. 67)

We approve, out of all methods, the one that the apostle not only commends in this text to Timothy, when he wishes that theological matters first be taught and then admonished, that thereby practice be perpetually joined to theory, but also employs everywhere throughout his epistles, especially those he wrote to the Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and others. By this method, I say again, practice should be joined to theory, not only in the whole corpus of theology, in such a way that the first place is especially reserved for the things that must be believed and the second for the things that must be done, but also that in each member of theology, practice should walk in step with theory in a continuous agreement. (p. 69)

He [Paul] also commands that what can be taught should also be applied, adn that doctrine should be according to godliness, that is, theoretical-practical.  He prohibits Timothy from teaching in any other way. (p. 73)

Christian theology unites theory with practice, and is ‘a knowledge of truth that is according to godliness’ (Titus 1:1). (p. 79).

Indeed, the study of theology, to the extent that it is true theology, is not sufficient, unless… it is earnestly devoted to practical theology and to practice. (p. 95)

In fact, here’s how Van Mastrich defines Christian theology:

…Christian theology is best defined as the doctrine of living for God through Christ. (p. 66)

Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol 1: Prolegomena.

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

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Divine Purpose and Foreknowledge (Augustine)

The Protestant Reformers did not make up their teaching about God’s foreknowledge, sovereignty, and divine purpose.  Here’s Augustine:

“Now God foreknew everything, and therefore could not have been unaware that man would sin.  It follows that all our assertions about the Holy City must take into account God’s foreknowledge and his providential design; we must not advance theories which could not have become matters of knowledge for us, because they had no place in God’s plan.  Man could not upset the divine purpose by his sin, in the sense of compelling God to alter his decision.  For God in his foreknowledge anticipated both results: he knew beforehand how evil the man would become whom God himself had created good; he also knew what good, even so, he would bring out of man’s evil.”

Of course, ultimately the Reformers did not lean on Augustine, but Scripture:

“[God] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11 NIV).

“[Jesus] was handed over…by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge…” (Acts 2:23 NIV).

“The plans of the LORD stand firm forever…” (Ps. 33:11 NIV).

“He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.          No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Dan. 4:35 NIV)

To be sure, there are quite a few other Bible texts that affirm the truth that God is sovereign and in total control of all things.  Nothing surprises him; his counsel will stand and nothing can thwart his plans or purposes.  This is good news for Christians.  Not only do all things come our way by the good and sovereign will of God, but our salvation is also secure because it is part of his sovereign plan in Christ.

The above quote from Augustine is found in City of God, XIV.11.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

God’s Wrath, God’s Love, and the Cross (Carson)

Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God God’s love and his wrath are on display throughout the Bible.  I realize “the wrath of God” sounds harsh in many people’s ears, but it clearly is a teaching of the Bible.  It’s a teaching that has to do with the perfect justice of God.  Here’s how Don Carson well explained the love and wrath of God:

“The reality is that the Old Testament displays the grace and love of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in new covenant writings.  Similarly, the Old Testament displays the righteous wrath of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the new covenant writings.  In other words, both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New.  These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – in the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s love?  Look at the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s wrath?  Look at the cross.

Hymn writers have sometimes captured this best,  In Wales Christians sing a nineteenth-century hymn by William Rees:

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.

D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, p 70-71.

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

A Distinction Between God and Matter (Athenagoras)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      I’ve mentioned the 2nd century church father Athenagoras on this blog several times before (on theology here, on violence and abortion here, and on homosexuality here).  One helpful section of his treatise called “A Plea for the Christians” is where Athenagoras defends the fact that Christians do not worship matter, but God, who is separate from matter and the Creator of it.  In today’s language, we’d say that Athenagoras was making a distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Athenagoras put it this way:

“[We] distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval.”

Many in the Roman Empire accused Christians of impiety and godlessness because they did not worship images of the gods.  Here is part of Athenagoras’ answer to the charge of impiety:

“…The the multitude [of people], who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore [[we who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them]] are we to come and worship images?

If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we [Christians] are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove [distance] from one another – as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art – why are we called to account [of impiety]?

For as is the potter and the clay (matter being the clay, and the artist the potter), so is God, the Framer of the world, and matter, which is subservient to Him for the purposes of His art.  But as the clay cannot become vessels of itself without art, so neither did matter, which is capable of taking all forms, receive, apart from God the Framer, distinction and shape and order. And as we do not hold the pottery of more worth than him who made it, nor the vessels or glass and gold than him who wrought them; but if there is anything about them elegant in art we praise the artificer, and it is he who reaps the glory of the vessels: even so with matter and God – the glory and honor of the orderly arrangement of the world belongs of right not to matter, but to God, the Framer of matter.

So that, if we were to regard the various forms of matter as gods, we should seem to be without any sense of the true God, because we should be putting the things which are dissoluble and perishable on a level with that which is eternal.”

This is obviously part of a larger apologetic argument, but I think it makes sense without the larger context.  I appreciate it because Athenagoras is defending the Christian faith by explaining the distinction between the Creator and the creature.  Many religions today are pantheistic, so Athenagoras’ defense of Christian truth still speaks today.

Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 135.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“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

A Historical Exodus: Essential For Christian Theology

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture The historical nature of the Exodus is of utmost importance in Scripture and for the Christian faith.  Modern critics have questioned, doubted, and denied the historical nature of the Exodus for more than a few years, and in light of this, it is important for Christians to understand and uphold the Bible’s teaching that the Exodus was an historical event.

James Hoffmeier defends this claim in his excellent essay, “Why A Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology.”  Hoffmeier’s main point is this:

“The exodus and wilderness narratives are central to OTT (Old Testament Theology), and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.”  …These events stand at the heart of Israel’s religious life, as evidenced by the fact that these themes are ubiquitous throughout the Old Testament itself. (p. 106, 111).

Hoffmeier goes on to give some detail on the various ways and times the Exodus theme shows up in the OT.  Here’s a brief summary:

1) God’s self-disclosure often refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:2, Lev 19:36, 25:34, Num. 15:41, Deut 5:6, Ps 81:10, Hos. 12:9, etc.).  Many times in the OT God reveals himself as Yahweh who brought his people out of Egypt and made a covenant with them.

2) The historical prologue of the Sinaitic covenant refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:1-2; cf. Josh. 24:4ff).  ANE covenants of this sort often gave a historical background to the terms of the covenant; so did Israel’s covenant.

3) Legal matters of Israel had to do with the Exodus.  Many ethical laws in Israel had their background in the Exodus.  For example, Israel was to free their slaves after a certain time because God freed them from their slavery (Lev 25:46ff, Deut. 15:15, etc).  Israel was not to mistreat foreigners because they were foreigners before the Exodus (Ex. 22:21, Lev. 19:34, etc.).

4) Many of Israel’s religious festivals, observances, and rites had roots in the Exodus.  Religious rituals are reenactments or repetitions of sacred moments or events, behind which stands an archetype.  In Israel, they celebrated the Passover and feast of unleavened bread, not to mention the feast of booths, observance of the Sabbath, and consecration of the firstborn.  All of these laws were based on the pattern of the Exodus.

5) Some of Israel’s hymns recounted God’s power in the Exodus.  The Song of Moses and of Miriam celebrate the event (Ex. 15).  Deborah’s hymn refers to the Exodus (Judg. 5:4-5).  See also Ps. 78, 105, and 106 (etc.).

6) The prophets refer to the Exodus and Sinaitic covenant.  Over and over the prophets, prosecuting the covenant, remind Israel that Yahweh brought them out of slavery (Hos. 11:1, 13:5, Amos 9:7, Micah 6:4-5, etc.).

7) Non-Israelites mention the Exodus.  Jethro and Balaam are two examples (Ex. 18, Num. 22-23).  Rahab of Jericho had heard about the Exodus, which made her believe in God (Josh. 2:9-10).  The Philistines also had heard of it (1 Sam. 4:6-8).

8) Israel’s calendar was based on the Exodus.  The Exodus from Egypt, because it was a founding national event, served as a chronological benchmark or anchoring point in subsequent periods (Ex. 12:1-2, 19:1, Num. 9:1-2, etc.).

9) The Exodus is referred to in retrospect quite often.  Moses looked back and reminded the people of the Exodus (Num. 20:14-17), the theme is found in Judges (Judg. 6:13, 11:13-16), and Saul recounts it (1 Sam. 12:6-8).

Again, those points are very short summaries of Hoffmeier’s essay that shows how the Exodus theme runs through the fabric of the Old Testament and its theology.  (Note: Hoffmeier also mentions the Exodus theme in the NT, but I don’t have the space to summarize it here.)  Hoffmeier does a nice job of proving this point: the Exodus as an historical event is essential for Old Testament theology and is also an essential part of Christian Scripture (and faith!).

Hoffmeier’s article can be found in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), chapter 4.

shane lems

A Theology of the Body (Or: Zombies)

Though I don’t agree with it all, this is one interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful book: Incarnate: The Body of Christ and the Age of Disengagement by Michael Frost.  In it, Frost argues that humans are becoming less involved with one another in a personal, face to face way.  One of his main points is that because of certain technologies, it is possible for people to live disembodied lives, where one can interact online, go to church online, do one-click activism work online (called slacktivism), and generally avoid real and “embodied” relationships.  He contrasts excarnate or disembodied living with incarnate, embodied living, making excellent points against the former  and arguing in favor of the latter.

In one example, Frost uses the recent zombie craze to make his point.  He asks the question, “Why are [zombies] so popular and so enduring as a pop culture device?

“Some have suggested that zombie apocalypse is a more palatable end-of-the world scenario because it’s a truly secular one with no judgmental deities presiding over the fate of humankind.  Others have speculated that it’s a cracked, secular version of resurrection.  However, culture watcher Dan Birlew suggests the reasons for the popularity of zombie fiction lies somewhere more primal:”

‘There’s an entire world full of walking punching bags.  People are now zombies, and you have to kill them before they kill you.  So it doesn’t really matter what you do to them, because they’re not people anymore.  They’re former people that you can beat down and tear apart in the most gruesome ways you can think of.  …Take out all your frustrations in all the ways you ever dreamed, it doesn’t matter anymore.  No one’s going to stop you from killing a monster, even if it used to be a person.’

Frost then says that though mowing down zombies is at one level entertaining for some people,

“[It] is horrifying because it too represents our greatest fear: that we are dispensable.  While many people are happy to treat their own bodies and those of other people like zombies – casually and indiscriminately – deeper down there’s a sense of horror that our bodies could mean so little.”

Since action scenes where mobs of humans are mowed down (e.g. Rambo) are politically incorrect these days, Frost notes, “we’ve had to resort to killing unhuman objects like zombies for the same effect.  And all the while we are picking at the scab of our nagging anxiety of our own indispensability.”

Frost ends the chapter by stating a biblical understanding of the human body: “We are our bodies.  We don’t live in our bodies.  And therefore our bodies and the bodies of others are precious and worthy of respect (cf. Phil. 1:20-23).

“[Christ’s] bodily resurrection from the dead signaled the Christian hope for the ongoing identity of a person with his or her own body. The body is not a prison to be released from but is the person in a profound sense.”

Michael Frost: Incarnate (DownersGrove, IVP, 2014), chapter three.

shane lems