As a member of a local confessional Presbyterian church and coming from my background as an Independent Baptist, I can’t help but notice how easy it is to confirm the common accusation that “Presbyterians often seem to cite the Confession more readily than they do the Bible.” As I listen to teaching (that of no one in particular, and this is not restricted to my own congregation), I often find myself listening to it as if I were a Baptist who was hearing this presentation for the first time. It doesn’t take long before all the biblicist defenses go up. A Reformed teacher will teach a vital biblical truth and then they will cite the Westminster Standards or something from the Three Forms of Unity (click on the “Creeds, Etc.” link at the top of this webpage for more information on these Reformed doctrinal standards). The response a self-respecting biblicist is trained to make to a presentation like this is, “That’s nice, now what does the Bible say about it?” or, more boldly, they might declare, “I don’t care what your confession or catechism says, what does the Bible say?”
It occurs to me that if Presbyterians and those of other confessional Reformed denominations want to persuade those from outside their tradition, like Baptists, to believe that what Reformed confessions and catechisms teach is based on the Bible, then perhaps it would be time well spent to express their biblically based confessional statements by first disclosing what the Bible says and working from this to showing how what the confession or catechism says is solidly based on what the Bible says.
After all, a “Confession” is not intended to be a rival for the Bible, but an expression of what Reformed churches believe the Bible teaches. To use the word “Confession” alone does not necessarily communicate this ultimate point to those from outside the tradition. That’s why when I personally explain things related to the Confession of Faith, I will put the word “Confession” in a sentence that attempts to fully express what a Confession of Faith is. For example, “This biblical truth (whatever it may be) is worded this way, or that way, in the Confession of what Reformed churches believe best summarizes the teaching of the Bible.”
Now I realize there are many good Reformed teachers who are careful to base their arguments on Scripture, but the stereotype that the Reformed in general have a bad habit of quoting the confession more than they do the Bible is grounded in verifiable reality. I love hearing an explanation of what the Confession teaches, but then, I have already gotten over the hurdle of being persuaded that what the Confession teaches is what the Bible teaches, although not infallibly, of course.
For this reason, I have decided to engage in a little exercise for a while, which I will share with my readers. In the spirit of how I would like to hear the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms expressed, I’m simply going to take the Scripture Proofs cited for almost any given phrase in the Westminster Larger Catechism (which my church currently happens to being going through), summarize the point being highlighted in the verses, cite the verses themselves, then explain that this is the reason the Catechism reads the way it reads.
Sound like fun? I hope you’ll join me! In the following post, I will give this treatment to the first clause in Question and Answer #73 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.
HT: Cado Odac
When I was a child, and a member of a Dispensational Premillennial IFB church, I would often hear my pastor commenting on any given Sunday, “It’s cloudy today—this might just be the day the Lord returns.” At other times, he would conclude the opposite: “I didn’t notice any clouds in the sky, so I guess the Lord may not return today. But this is Texas, and the weather could change at any moment.” The literal presence of clouds in the sky was seen as a necessary condition of Christ’s Second Coming. Why is this? It’s because of the Lord’s words in Matthew 24:30.
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
(Matthew 24:30 ESV)
Was Jesus predicting that on the day of his return, it will literally be cloudy? No, Jesus was alluding to a prophecy by Daniel of the coming of “one like a son of man” who comes “with the clouds of heaven.” What would be the point of predicting whether it would be cloudy on the day of the coming of the Son of Man? Let’s look at Daniel’s prophecy to which Christ alludes (the key phrases will be highlighted):
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:13-14 ESV)
The first thing to notice is the fact that this prophecy contains poetic language. That’s why the ESV editors (and those of most modern English versions) format the prophecy in a poetic style. Ancient Hebrew poetry does not have the same standards for literalism as historical narrative does. It is true that the Gospel of Matthew is a historical narrative, and so it is literally true that Jesus quoted Daniel’s prophecy, but the prophecy Jesus quoted in this historical narrative Gospel account is still a poetic reference.
If the reference to clouds in association with the coming of the Son of Man bears poetic, symbolic meaning, then what might that meaning be? Let’s look at a few other poetic Old Testament passages that similarly associate clouds with the activity of Yahweh.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
If we are to take Christ’s reference to coming with clouds literally, then are we also to take Psalm 104’s statement that the LORD makes the clouds his chariot literally? Does an infinite, omnipresent Spirit need to stand on a cloud, hold a set of reins and be transported by means of atmospheric water vapor? Well, has he also literally laid giant wooden beams across a body of water and built chambers in which he might dwell? Does wind literally have wings? Of course it doesn’t. This is nothing but poetic imagery. So, what idea does this imagery of clouds convey? Basically, it conveys the idea of God’s terrifying power and authority. Notice how the Egyptians and their idols react to the image of the LORD riding on a cloud in Isaiah 19:
An oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
With these things in mind, let’s go back and take another look at Matthew 24:30: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).
I hope we can more clearly see now, that the significance of the coming of the Son of Man “on the clouds of heaven” lies in the fact of his terrifying power and great glory whose appearing will make all the tribes of the earth mourn, and at which time will occur the Last Judgment and the ultimate consummation of his Kingdom. This is just one of many examples of the need to genuinely take into account the literary structure of a passage in order to determine its proper interpretation.
This weekend C-SPAN2 is airing a speech delivered by David R. Stokes, the author of The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America (©2011 Steerforth Press) at a recent book signing in Austin, TX. It played last night at 9pm (Eastern), it has replayed once this morning, but you can still catch it one final time this afternoon at 3pm (Eastern).
The program has already been added to the BookTV online archive, so it may be accessed there if you miss this afternoon’s showing.
Dig my latest comment at Darryl G. Hart’s Old Life Theological Society. His post is titled, “Young, Restless and Lutheran?” He questions whether the broad approach of the Young, Restless and Reformed movement isn’t so broad that it might be more accurate to call it “Young, Restless and Lutheran,” given that, in Hart’s view, it’s less about Reformed theology in general or the five points of Calvinism in particular (no pun intended), and more about having been inspired by a bigger vision of God at the hands of John Piper channeling Jonathan Edwards, and generally begins reminding us all how much less Reformed they are than he and his Truly Reformed OPC brethren are (among whom I eagerly anticipate numbering me and mine). This is my summary, anyway, be it accurate or not.
I found the post and some of the resultant comments engaging enough that I just had to share my own experience at moving from Fundamentalism, through Evangelicalism and into Reformed Confessionalism. Although I write with tongue-in-cheek, the experiences are all very real (and they’re just the tip of the iceberg).
Confessions of a Restlessly Reforming Evangelical Fundamentalist:
Fortunately, I bypassed the whole Piper YRR movement (Piper’s creative and independent streak is waaay too Baptist for my taste) and swallowed the whole TR thing hook, line and sinker…Or so I thought. The further one goes, the more one discovers which exaggerates the differences between what it means to be Evangelical (in modern Western Christianity, that is) and what it means to be Reformed.
First, you fall for the 5 points; then you get over the hump about baptism (my logic was, “if the seventeenth century Baptists agreed with Presbyterians on so much,” as I was then coming to perceive, “then what makes them think Presbyterians are so wrong about baptism?”)…
…then you deal with stuff like exclusive “Acapulco” psalmody, and, for me living in a region where there is no glut of Reformed churches, I take the lazy man’s approach and say this isn’t an issue I have the luxury of standing for, even if I were persuaded of it. And some of their arguments I do find attractively compelling. If it weren’t for those of the advocates of instrumental hymnody.
Now that I’m preparing to join an OPC church, and begin reading all this vast literature about this “splinter group” of a denomination, I feel I’ve come full circle in some ways back to a Presbyterian version of my separatistic IFB background (even the local church planting missions emphasis is reminiscent of the IFB, without the Faith Promise giving campaigns), if you consider some of you more outspoken OPC guys’ position and attitude about TGC and T4G.
Yes, growing up among separatistic fundamentalists, yet consuming my fair share of big tent Evangelical media, it is quite a process in coming to a point where you can confidently call yourself “Reformed” without crossing your fingers behind your back.