Getting Calvin Wrong

In an academic book written by leading scholars, one does not expect to find egregious errors. But one finds them nonetheless. I was privileged to attend the 2009 international Calvin conference in Geneva, commemorating the 500th birthday of the Genevan Reformer John Calvin. (Calvin himself was a no-show. Same thing happened when I visited John Knox’s house in Edinburgh in 1989. He wasn’t home).

Anyway, Irena Backus and Philip Benedict edited a collection of the keynote addresses that came out of that conference. Calvin and his Influence, 1509-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 336+xiii). You can get it for $115 on in hardcover. You might opt for the paperback after you read this. Or for looking at the decent essays in the library. And there are many. Even the introduction is fantastic, except where it is deplorable.

You can read my complete review here. As I was trying to describe Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in 1000 words for Christian History magazine (an impossible task, by the way), I was recently reminded of the following unbelievable comment, made by the editors in the introduction to this volume. It still astounds me:

“While [Calvin] stresses election to salvation but not to damnation in his controversy with Bolsec, he prefers in his Institutes of 1559 to emphasize God’s prescience: God elects to salvation those whom he foresees will be true believers, which implies that he also foresees the others as unbelievers and condemns them. … In the Institutes (3,19-25; 4,18-20), he asserts that God foresees who will believe and elects or condemns as a function of this” (p. 13).

If you have a theological education, you can pause here and catch your breath.

Calvin, first of all, does not teach “election to damnation,” because election by definition refers to God’s choice to save. “Election to damnation” is therefore nonsense, and indicates a lack of familiarity with basic Reformed theology. What the authors have in mind, of course, is reprobation, which is the opposite of election. But they clearly do not understand either election or reprobation, as will be seen below. Moreover, the editors of this volume, who are indeed leading Reformation scholars, project onto Calvin the view of Jacob Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants, who based election on God’s foreknowledge of a person’s faith. This view does not exist until the early 17th century. Calvin, however, opposed the idea, common in one trajectory of late medieval thought, that God elects those in whom he foresees merit, albeit grace-assisted merit, congruent merits, to be precise. Third, these scholars assume that reprobation is the same thing as condemnation, which demonstrates again that they do not know the first thing about Reformed theology. Their goal is to present a more accurate picture of Calvin and to dispel caricatures, but in fact they are part of the problem.

There is a footnote to the authors’ statement that reads: “OS I: 88-90.” OS refers to the Opera Selecta, a five-volume collection of Calvin’s works considered most important by its editor, Peter Barth (Karl Barth’s younger brother). But this reference does not point to the 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion; it points to the 1536 first edition of the Institutes and its very brief and rudimentary treatment of predestination, in which Calvin makes no mention of foreknowledge. Calvin’s mature comments on predestination in the 1559 Institutes actually appear in OS IV: 368-432. Setting aside this serious error, it’s safe to say that Calvin never says what these leading Reformation scholars say he does, because he clearly, frequently, and consistently teaches the opposite. So, for example, in his 1559 Institutes, 3.21.5, Calvin writes:

“The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny; but it is greatly caviled at, especially by those who make prescience its cause. We, indeed, ascribe both prescience and predestination to God; but we say, that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former.” (Citations from the Beveridge trans.)

Or a bit later, in 3.22.1:

“If election precedes that divine grace by which we are made fit to obtain immortal life, what can God find in us to induce him to elect us?”


And further in 3.22.2:

“If you say that he foresaw they would be holy, and therefore elected them, you invert the order of Paul. … In the additional statement that they were elected that they might be holy, the apostle openly refutes the error of those who deduce election from prescience, since he declares that whatever virtue appears in men is the result of election. Then, if a higher cause is asked, Paul answers that God so predestined, and predestined according to the good pleasure of his will. By these words, he overturns all the grounds of election which men imagine to exist in themselves.”


And further yet in 3.22.3:

“We have already shown that the additional words, ‘that we might be holy,’ remove every doubt. If you say that he foresaw they would be holy, and therefore elected them, you invert the order of Paul. You may, therefore, safely infer, If he elected us that we might be holy, he did not elect us because he foresaw that we would be holy. …

And how can it be consistently said, that things derived from election are the cause of election? … Assuredly divine grace would not deserve all the praise of election, were not election gratuitous; and it would not be gratuitous did God in electing any individual pay regard to his future works.”


And yet again in 3.22.4:


“The question considered is the origin and cause of election. The advocates of foreknowledge insist that it is to be found in the virtues and vices of men. For they take the short and easy method of asserting, that God showed in the person of Jacob, that he elects those who are worthy of his grace; and in the person of Esau, that he rejects those whom he foresees to be unworthy.”
Beza young 01
Théodore de Bèze

To add clichéd insult to this injury, the introduction goes on to claim that Theodore Beza’s Tabula Praedestinationis (or, more properly, his Summa Totius Christianismi, 1555) “presented election and reprobation in diagram form as exactly symmetrical in God’s mind, both constituting a part of his eternal decree.”



Yes, election and reprobation are both part of the eternal decree, but they are not “exactly symmetrical.” The opponents of Calvin and Beza would make that charge, but without grounds. Does this look exactly symmetrical to you?


2016-07-01 (2)


I didn’t think so.


The important non-symmetry between election and reprobation is this: Election is God’s decision to bestow a completely undeserved and unmerited salvation to certain individuals. Reprobation, however, is the divine decision to give sinners exactly what they deserve and merit. Moreover, even if you can’t read Latin, you can see that the lines are not exactly symmetrical. In the matter of calling, for example, God’s call to repent and believe is effective in the elect, but in the reprobate there are two possibilities: some never hear the summons to believe the good news, while others hear but experience a voluntary hardening (induratio spontanea) of their hearts. People are saved because of election and the salvation that ensues because of election, but sinners are not condemned because of they are reprobate. They are condemned because they freely sin and rebel against God. The later Canons of Dordt make this even more clear and explicit than Beza, but the distinction was definitely there in less refined form. (The Canons reject the false charge that the Reformed churches teach “that in the same manner in which election is the source and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and ungodliness.” Conclusion: Rejection of False Accusations).


Which just goes to show that academics don’t know everything. Even the best of them. And sometimes they don’t even know the basics of theology. And anyone who presumes to study a theologian (like Calvin) should know the basics of theology.



From Embers to a Flame 1

etaf_coverAlong with several other congregations, First Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church is beginning a season of intentional renewal through the Church Renewal Lab. One of the books that we will be reading to help guide us through this process is Harry L. Reeder III’s From Embers to a Flame: How God can Revitalize your Church. I will be providing some highlights from each of the chapters here on this blog. Reeder is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).

Chapter 1: The Need for Church Revitalization

Reeder begins with some sobering statistics. He says that “over 80% of established American churches are either on a plateau or in decline,” and that every year “3,500-4,000 churches die in this country” (7).

Reeder’s Diagnosis

Reeder diagnoses several “symptoms of a sick church“:

A Focus on Programs. His book, he says, is not about a program, but about “principles that the Lord has designed and will use to bring more life to the body as he chooses to do in his sovereign plan” (9). You can tell that Reeder comes from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition!

Nostalgia and Tradition. “Dying churches are often living in the past” (10). True dat! Reeder clarifies, helpfully: “The past is important and should be celebrated” but “we need to realize that the pleasant river of nostalgia can swell into a sweeping current that takes the church backward and downward to destruction” (11).

Personality Dependence. Dying churches presume that they need pastoral leader with a very specific kind of personality to experience growth. Often they presume that they need a charismatic extrovert. But Reeder provides several examples of unassuming, introverted pastors who nonetheless pastored growing and vibrant congregations.

A Maintenance Mentality. Dying churches just want to stay alive and pay the bills; but this mentality contributes to the death of a church.

Excuses and a Victim Mindset. Unhealthy churches say “That will never work here because ______” Or: “We already tried that,” and other excuses. These churches assume that external factors keep it from growing, and that the church is a powerless victim in the face of these factors. Reeder emphasizes that “even our weaknesses provide an opportunity for God to work in and through us” (13-14). Remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh! (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

A Bad Reputation in the Community. “The longer a church follows a pattern of decline, the worse its public image and reputation become. The community at large and the neighboring churches form opinions about the church’s condition. The people who do the most damage in this regard are often the ones who have left the church and gone elsewhere” (16). Reeder suggests that leaders regularly ask questions about how their congregation is perceived by other churches and in the community.

Distraction from the Gospel. The worst symptom of an unhealthy, dying church is when “something else has become  more important than living according to the gospel and sharing it with people who need to be saved.”

The Privileges of Church Revitalization

Reeder argues that church revitalization is an important ministry, and that it should not be dismissed in favor of just starting over with a new church plant (though there are times when that is appropriate). He asserts that in most cases a ministry of church revitalization is closer to the heart of our Lord,” the Heart of the Shepherd (18). In addition, The Heart of the Apostle, Paul, was dedicated to the health of churches. Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41, cf. Acts 18:23). And Reeder claims that church revitalization can be much more rewarding than church planting, and that established churches have numerous advantages and resources that are not available in a new church plant.

Chapter 2: The Biblical Paradigm for Revitalization

Here Reeder talks about inappropriate models of the church growth, for example, the Hollywood model that assumes the church needs to entertain people, or the Wall Street model that assumes the church needs to market itself and adopt business principles, or the therapeutic model that assumes the church exists to meet people’s emotional needs.

Health and Growth

On the contrary, Reeder argues that if a church is healthy, it will grow–though Reeder says that while growth in numbers will usually accompany church health, that is not always the case. The size of a congregation is not a reliable indicator of health.

Ephesus as a Case Study

The church at Ephesus is an important example of how growth follows health. It was, as Reeder says, one of the four “epicenter” churches along with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome (30). Paul founded it along with Silas, and Priscilla and her husband Aquila. It was in Ephesus that Priscilla and Aquila discipled Apollos, who became a leading evangelist (Acts 18:24-28). The believers at Ephesus also had a transforming emphasis on the pagan culture around them, when their evangelistic efforts threatened the local cult of the Greek goddess Artemis and the local economy that was dependent upon that cult. When Paul moved on to continue his evangelistic work, he addressed the elders and Ephesus and warned them: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). And that is what happened. By the time Timothy is pastoring the church, Paul has to tell him to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (I Tim. 1:3). The younger widows in particular were being deceived by false teachers and promoting these false teachings themselves (I Tim. 5:11-15). The church at Ephesus continued to struggle, as we discover from the book of Revelation; there the Lord Jesus rebukes the church because “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (see Rev. 2:1-5).

The Plan

Reeder’s paradigm for a strategic fitness plan, for revitalization, includes ten strategies, organized under the headings Remember, Repent, and Recover the First Things. The remaining chapters of the book will cover these strategies for revitalization:


  • Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past


  • Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance

Recover the First Things

  • Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry
  • Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation
  • Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer
  • Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching
  • Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision
  • Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication
  • Revitalization Strategy 9: Small-Group Discipleship
  • Revitalization Strategy 10: A Great Commitment to the Great Commission

Click here for part two.

Orthodoxy and Submission

There is a theological debate going on in which Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have proposed an eternal subordination of the Son in the Trinity. In other words, they claim that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father in the Godhead. This is an unorthodox understanding of the relationship of the divine persons of the Godhead, akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism, because it puts the Son in a lesser, subordinate position to the Father. Leading Patristic scholars and Trinitarian experts like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres leave no doubt about the fact that these writers are advocating heterodoxy (false doctrine, heresy), or veering toward heresy, or at the very least using very confused language that would lead to heretical formulations regarding the Trinity. Another Trinity expert, Steven Holmes, writes that “Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can Trinity-295x300keep his ‘complementarianism.’” But the doctrine of the Trinity is not the main reason for this post. It’s the “complementarianism” that moves me to write today. This new and controversial understanding of the Trinity is driven by a theological anthropology (that is, a particular view of humanity) that sees women (not wives but women per se) as subordinate in function to men (not husbands). This hierarchical anthropology is then projected onto the Trinity, in order to bolster the anthropology. That theory of humanity that views women as created by God to submit to male leadership is called complementarianism.  An old friend of mine, an outstanding historical theologian and a complementarian, Carl Trueman, writes of this latest controversy about the Trinity and complementarianism:


“…it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists; or it will cause orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.”

I agree, except that I see the latter option as not only preferable, but desirable.


Orthodox believers should abandon complementarianism. Not because there is no distinction between male or female. Not because, in a general sense, men and women, husbands and wives, are not “complementary” in many ways. But precisely because they are. Women provide a much-needed complement to men…also in positions of leadership and authority. This is true in a marriage, in a household, in the church, in a business, and in society in general. And the idea that God created women to be subject to men is simply no longer credible. Women are subject to men in the Bible because, as John Calvin taught, God accommodates and adapts the Bible to the time, culture, and conventions of ancient near eastern peoples. That does not mean that God intends women to be perpetually subject to men.


The most important reason why orthodox Christians should seriously reconsider the claims of complementarianism is that it is not as biblically sound as its proponents claim. This post is not about the detailed exegetical and theological arguments to that end, but I will briefly point to Fuller Theological Seminary’s (dated but still valuable) statement on women in ministry, and a compelling exegetical argument by D. Heidebrecht. In sum, as Heidebrecht writes, “Reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15 within its literary context indicates that Paul is not addressing women here simply because they are women.” Carl Trueman once displayed utter disbelief that I could support the ordination of women, but I daresay he has the weaker exegetical argument. I should say that I have many friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect who are complementarians, so don’t take this as an attack. But even that is not the main reason for my post.

John Calvin, like most thinkers in the sixteenth century, did not think women should be pastors, nor, ideally, that should they be rulers. He did, however, argue that God did in fact raise up female rulers as a concession to human sin, and that the authority of female rulers is to be considered legitimate and to be obeyed. Not only that, but Calvin was ashamed and embarrassed by John Knox, who in a misogynist diatribe claimed that it was contrary to God’s will and the order of nature that women should hold positions of authority in government, and that female monarchs were illegitimate and should be overthrown by force of arms. Knox had very specific women in mind: Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England (styled “Bloody Mary,” and not because she invented the drink). But he also claimed that women in general were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish.” Calvin saw that Knox was undermining support for the Reformation by Protestant Queens. In fact, Calvin said that Knox was guilty of “thoughtless arrogance” by writing this inflammatory tract. Indeed, Knox ended up shooting himself in the foot and doing irreversible harm to the cause of thoroughgoing Reform in England generally when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne; she despised him for his he-man woman-hating rhetoric, and extended her disdain to Geneva, to the dismay of Calvin and Theodore Beza. But while I have a compulsion to include Reformation debates in everything, this is not the main reason for this post.

Today’s complementarians would never repeat the vile things that Knox said. But too often, in my reading of many complementarians (and not all of them, mind you), the anti-female bias comes out in a patronizing way. John Piper, for example portrays women as soft and weak and vulnerable, and he even goes so far as to claim that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” But this is not the Bible; this is John Piper’s projection onto the Bible of his own preferred reality. It seems to me that this is a species of idolatry, a fetishizing of masculinity, and a rather bizarre one at that. In addition, the volume Piper edited with Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, made arguments that I found not only weak, but sometimes downright offensive (for a review of that volume by a person who had a similar assessment, start here.)

And that brings me to the main reason for this post. Complementarians are varied in their views, but increasingly, I find the whole complementarian perspective not only mistaken, but also untenable. Not in the sense that it cannot be rationally or exegetically defended, but in the sense that holding to complementarianism in the modern church is harmful to the mission  and witness of the church, and therefore can no longer be held. At its worst, complementarianism leads to extremist statements like those by John Piper that women can’t hold most positions of authority over a man, or even his deeply offensive and frankly bizarre assertion that a pastor can’t read a commentary written by a woman unless he excludes from his mind all traces of her femininity, particularly her dangerous, feminine body. This is misogyny, pure and simple* (see this perceptive article in Christianity Today, as well as this blog post). I am certain John Piper does not intend it as such, but it is in fact a derogatory view of women, and it is thus ungodly, sinful, unholy, and it should be repudiated. Ultimately I judge complementarianism to be based on a simplistic reading of Scripture, but one that claims to be the “simple” and plain reading, uninfluenced by cultural assumptions. This interpretation unwittingly projects older western cultural views of women’s roles onto Pauline texts (and charges that opponents are projecting “feminism” onto the texts), while failing to distinguish incidental historical context (for example, the gender roles assumed in first century Jewish culture) from the invariable intent of Paul’s doctrine. It also minimizes the role that women actually played in Paul’s ministry.

For the complementarians, the tail is wagging the dog. To cite Steve Holmes again:


I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?

Not only my study of scripture and theology, but my pastoral experience, demonstrates to me that complementarianism is “obviously false,” to borrow Holmes’ phrase. Increasingly, this is and will be the perspective of theologians and biblical scholars.


For my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I think we need to be done once and for all with the unwritten assumption among many conservatives that the really orthodox, really confessionally Reformed people will of course be complementarians. Especially since zealous defenders of a male-only pulpit are now abandoning Nicene Orthodoxy in order to advance their agenda. This agenda is now eroding orthodoxy! Not among all complementarians (witness Carl Trueman as just one of many leading examples), but the link between keeping women in their place and orthodoxy should now be dissolved once and for all. I am orthodox and confessional, and I reject complementarianism. I did so after many years of careful, painstaking study, and much wavering in the early years of my theological education. In fact, I think that complementarianism, apart from being theologically and exegetically flawed, and impossible to practice with any real consistency, is a significant hindrance to our ministry, and particularly our witness to younger generations. It undermines our witness in a society and culture that rightly assumes that women as just as capable and gifted as men, a generation that correctly rejects subordinationist views of women as a relic from the past. Assuming that women take a back seat to men is a residue of our western history of subjugating women–women who only received the right to vote in the United States less than a century ago, and who only were declared “persons” in Canada in 1930, when the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council overturned the Canadian Supreme Court decision that excluded women from the Senate, deciding that they were not qualified “persons.”


If God’s Word clearly and obviously forbade female leadership in the church (as complementarians insist), I would join them. But it does not. Some two decades ago, Carl Trueman, in exasperation with me, suggested that I was deliberately twisting the Bible to support the ordination of women. I remember that with a smile and don’t hold it against him. I am sure he can defend his own position. But I am doing no such thing. And I am an expert on the history of biblical interpretation, so I know what I am talking about. The only text that can be legitimately employed to argue against women in church leadership,  I Timothy 2:11-15, is not a reference to the created order; it is an illustration–of a kind common in Jewish biblical interpretation–of how certain women in Ephesus were deceived by false teachers. The context of the Pauline letters makes it clear to me that there were women being deceived by false teachers in the church of Ephesus, and that his proscriptions on women teaching and wresting authority (αὐθεντεῖν–a very obscure word) from a man are specific to that context. There is a not a “creation ordinance” that subordinates women to men; that is an assumption and projection of western culture and tradition onto the text. If it were a statement of the enduring created order, one would have to conclude that women are inherently more susceptible to deception (v. 14). Who in good conscience would dare make such a claim? And if this text is clear and obvious, what in the world does Paul mean (v. 15) by saying that women will be saved through bearing children? In fact, this text is very difficult to unravel. It is one of the most obscure texts in the Bible, if not the most obscure. But what it cannot mean is that women are spiritually inferior or inherently more susceptible to deception (which would be a degrading and patently false teaching regarding half the human race). It cannot mean that only Eve became a sinner, since Paul locates the origin of human sin in Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12-17–Paul never mentions Eve here); nor can it mean that women are saved through having children, since Paul clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith. And how do these proscriptions jive with Paul’s actual practice of including women as coworkers in his ministry? I have heard many women express the feeling that Paul was down on women–but I would contend, on the contrary, that he was revolutionary when it came to women. In Philippians 4:2-3 the Apostle addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who contended at Paul’s side in the work of the ministry (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι); Paul includes them among his coworkers in the ministry (συνεργῶν μου). It is not likely that Paul would have to urge these two women to resolve whatever dispute they had if they were not persons of influence in the church at Philippi. Priscilla and her husband Aquila are also named as Paul’s coworkers (συνεργοί) in the ministry, Romans 16:3. Not only that, but Paul usually mentions Priscilla’s name first–a very curious reversal of convention, which indicates to me that Priscilla took the lead in the work of the ministry. Who cannot think of examples of women in their local congregation who are more invested in the work of the ministry than their husbands? And some husbands are more invested than their wives. There is no general rule.


More to the point, I am finding it increasingly difficult to minister in a context where women are not allowed to lead and to preach the Word. I find myself losing patience with the practice of excluding women, though I certainly think that a diversity of views should and must be tolerated. But the complementarian side can no longer have veto power. The implicit threat of people leaving if a congregation makes a change holds a congregation hostage, sometimes creating an atmosphere where the issue can never be discussed openly. Nor is this matter a confessional issue that would be grounds for leaving the church or fomenting a schism, as happened  in the 1990s. You may not prefer to have a woman serve as an elder in your congregation, but it is not grounds for leaving or protest. The Christian Reformed Church, through careful study over many years, has amply demonstrated that there is a solid biblical-theological argument for women to serve in all offices of the church. Our seminary trains women as pastors and church leaders, and approves women as candidates for the ministry. Personally, I am getting to old to fight this battle again and again, and to listen powerlessly while women in my congregation ask me how their church could continue to exclude them from leadership in the Body of Christ. The issue became much more pointed when my own daughter looked at me with disbelief and asked how the church could have such a policy. But God does not exclude them, contrary to an older exegesis that assumed a subordinate role for women. True complementarity excludes subordination. Not only that, at my age, I do not thing I would be willing to entertain a future call to a church or ministry that does not support women in ministry, or at least allow women to serve as officebearers and to preach. Churches that exclude women from the office of deacon, moreover, have absolutely no grounds for doing so apart from tradition, and by doing so, signal that they are a church of the past, not the future. Actually, I think Christian Reformed Churches that exclude women from the office of elder also send that same signal. And, finally, it is my firm conviction that, if our churches continue to insist on this gender qualification for leadership in the church will needlessly lose all credibility with younger generations. If we lose credibility because we are preaching the gospel, that is one thing (as when the Athenians laughed at Paul over the resurrection); but younger generations are right to see that our exclusion of women is not integral to the gospel. And this will be all the more evident when it comes to the much more difficult topic of how Christians and the church should relate to homosexuals and other persons with sexual differences in a Christian and pastoral manner.


 Carl Trueman wrote that the latest Trinitarian heterodoxy may have the unintended consequence of causing “orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.” I would hope so. We need to abandon it.



Cultivating Sacred Space

Some people wonder why I wear a robe in morning worship. This excerpt from a Christianity Today interview with Eugene Peterson conveys one of the primary reasons for doing so.

CT: What if we were to frame this not in terms of needs but relevance? Many Christians hope to speak to generation X or Y or postmoderns, or some subgroup, like cowboys or bikers—people for whom the typical church seems irrelevant.

PETERSON: When you start tailoring the gospel to the culture, whether it’s a youth culture, a generation culture or
any other kind of culture, you have taken the guts out of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the kingdom of this world. It’s a different kingdom.

My son Eric organized a new church six years ago. The Presbyterians have kind of a boot camp for new church pastors where you learn what you’re supposed to do. So Eric went. One of the teachers there said he shouldn’t put on a robe and a stole: “You get out there and you meet this generation where they are.”

Eugene Peterson

So Eric, being a good student and wanting to please his peers, didn’t wear a robe. His church started meeting in a high-school auditorium. He started out by wearing a business suit every Sunday. But when the first Sunday of Advent rolled around, and they were going to have Communion, he told me, “Dad, I just couldn’t do it. So I put my robe on.”

Their neighbors, Joel and his wife, attended his church. Joel was the stereotype of the person the new church development was designed for—suburban, middle management, never been to church, totally secular. Eric figured he was coming because they were neighbors, or because he liked him. After that Advent service, he asked Joel what he thought of his wearing a robe.

He said, “It made an impression. My wife and I talked about it. I think what we’re really looking for is sacred space. We both think we found it.”

I think relevance is a crock. I don’t think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they’re taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs.

Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it’s destroying our church.

redneck dominee robes

His Story and Yours

Meditation, Sunday Evening, May 8, 2016
Philippians 2:1-11

I am currently reading The Silver Chair, one of the volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, toSilver Chair Puddleglum etc one of my daughters, to help her fall asleep at night. We read it a few pages at a time, and she gradually falls asleep. If I try to leave too early, she’ll grab my arm; she hasn’t heard the last two pages, but she won’t let me leave until she’s completely in the REM state, comatose, really. Then the next night, I’ll try to pick up where I left off, but she doesn’t remember the last several pages, so I have to go back. So we’ve been on page 80 for about a month. But reading the story gives her comfort, and helps her fall asleep.

Stories are powerful. Stories captivate you. Stories invite you in. They invite you to participate in the story.

In fact, the good news about Jesus Christ is a story.

The gospel is not, first of all, doctrine. I say that as someone who spent most of my life becoming an historian of Christian doctrine. I have a vested interested in doctrine. But the teachings come from the story. And the gospel is not, first of all, ethics. Yes, there are Christian principles, about behavior and right and wrong, but the good news is not a list of rules for being a good person. The gospel is good news for people who are not good. For lawbreakers. When the Apostle Paul wants to urge the Philippian church to model their attitudes after Jesus (a kind of ethical point), he does so by telling the story of Christ’s life. But he begins the story not with the manger, not with the shepherds. He begins the story in eternity, before he left his Father’s side, and became a real, flesh-and-blood human being.

We read the story of Jesus in those books we call the Gospels. And the story continues in the book of Acts. And when the first Apostles began their work of evangelism, they began by telling the story of Israel. They climb up the steep slopes that are the Old Testament, and at the summit, they find Jesus. His story is God’s story.

The gospel is a story that we recall in outline whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a story that we travel through in the church year, when, with the shepherds, we wait for Christ’s coming, in Advent. When we walk with Jesus on the road that leads to the cross, during Lent. When we awake on a Sunday morning to the news: “He is risen!” When we stand with apostles gazing up into the sky, wondering when we will ever see Jesus again.

And the good news is that his story can be your story as well.

Your life is like the unfinished manuscript of a novel. And this story has multiple authors. The first chapters of the novel of your life were written entirely by others. But gradually, your own additions begin to appear, first appearing as mere pencil scribbles in the margins, later scrawled in large, childlike letters. Eventually, your parents contribute less and less, and the paragraphs become largely your own. In the teenage years, you think it’s entirely your own story, and that you are the sole author. But later, when you look back at those chapters, you see the contribution of teachers, coaches, friends, and even your parents, though you would never admit it at the time. The major turning points in the plot are parts that either you wrote, by your own choices, or that were written for you, by events that happened to you. As the chapters grow more numerous, you notice parts that you wish you could go back and edit, or delete entirely, but the story of your life doesn’t work that way.

Only one of the co-authors of your life, who turns out to be the primary Author, can resolve the tragic parts, the pages of regret, the chapters of loss and lament. He is also the hand behind the pages of joy and celebration, the sub-plots of love and affection. He is the author not only of your story, but of Creation itself. He is the only author of his own life. His story begins before time, a love story, the objects of his love not yet even existing, yet loved nonetheless. The Son of God in glory, resolving to become a mere mortal, a human being, and not only that, but to endure rejection, mockery, false condemnation, and a cursed death. All in order to rescue those whose story was pure tragedy, an epic tale of rebellion, failure, disgrace. But he entered into that story, your story, our story.

He did that so that we could enter into his story. He makes his story, your story, and your story, his. And every day that you get out of bed, you have an opportunity to write another page. It doesn’t have to be like yesterday’s page. And the Holy Spirit will be your Muse, your inspiration, if you take the time to listen.

The way that you write the story of your life is like an open letter to the world, about what matters to you, what is beautiful to you, what you love and whom you love. But if you let Jesus into your story, it’s also an open letter about who loves you, and who so loved the world.

Pondering Proverbs

The following is part of a sermon on Proverbs 22:6, from November 15, 2015, that I had to cut out for reasons of time.

The New Revised Standard Version translates Proverbs 22:6 with clever rhyme:

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.

 Countless parents have looked to this verse for encouragement and reassurance when childrearing becomes difficult, especially in the teenage years. But I wonder how often this text has also created anxiety and confusion for some, or worse, if it has led parents to blame themselves for the delinquency of their children.

Because I bet most of us can think of a situation where dedicated parents had a kid who didn’t stay on the right path! It’s just not true that if parents are faithful and diligent, their children will automatically, 100% of the time, turn out to have a strong faith and devotion to Jesus Christ and his church. We probably all know of those painful exceptions. Maybe you have them in your own family.

But the exceptions prove the rule. So, you can probably think of more examples of how children who were raised in homes that intentionally nurtured faith and faith practices grew up to embrace that faith and continue to pass it on today. That’s what usually happens when parents are intentional about conveying what we have been referring to as a “sticky faith,” a faith that is more than just mere behavior and external rules. In the same way, you can probably think of other young people who didn’t have many adults in their lives who were committed to nurturing and forming their faith, and it’s no surprise when these kids lose their way. That’s what the proverb is about: how things normally work out, when one follows the way of wisdom.

And that brings up an important point about how Proverbs work. Proverbs are not promises. They’re wisdom sayings. They describe how things usually go. In fact, there are two proverbs in the Bible that directly contradict each other, and the Bible has no problem with this at all. Proverbs 26:4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Then comes Proverbs 26:5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” So which one is right?

Both are right, depending on the circumstances. But only one is right in a given situation. It is important to understand that proverbs only make sense to those who are wise and discerning. In addition, it is part of wisdom to know how to apply the right proverb, in the right situation, at the right time. So, in the case of trying to talk sense to a foolish person, only a wise person will discern when the first proverb is more fitting. In that case, the wise person already knows that it’s no use trying to talk sense into a certain individual, and that the attempt might even make matters worse, then it is the better part of wisdom to hold your tongue. Otherwise you may end up entangled in his or her foolishness, and it will reflect badly on you. But suppose the foolish talker is still young and perhaps teachable? In that case, the second proverb is more applicable, and the wiser person will confront the person about their foolish talk, in the hopes of turning them around.

The wise person, in other words, knows when to apply the right proverb. And, again, proverbs are only valuable to people who are wise or seeking wisdom. In fact, a few verses later we read that a proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed limb (26:7), or much more vividly, as useless as some drunk guy fending off his enemies with a thorny stick (26:9).

It is an interesting and entertaining exercise, by the way, to look up these proverbs in different translations!

Debating the Descensus

On October 2, 2015, I had a discussion with Western Seminary students, hosted by Prof. Todd Billings, about the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, traditionally called the descensus. It is the phrase: “He descended into hell.” At the end of the 1990s,

The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

someone in the Reformed Church of Australia (now the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia) lodged a gravamen (a complaint against a confessional statement) regarding this phrase. The Australian church body considered numerous changes, but wisely submitted the matter to other Reformed churches for review and input. The CRCNA formed a study committee, which gave its final report at the 2000 Synod. The report, which was largely authored by my PhD mentor Richard A. Muller, is an excellent example of solid historical, theological, exegetical, and ecclesiastical analysis. You can read the report here: Descensus report Agenda 2000.

The arguments for deleting or altering the phrase are astounding. They presume that “hell” only means the place or state of eternal punishment. In modern usage, that meaning is dominant. However, its usage in the creed can mean either the place or state of punishment (gehenna) or, more commonly, the rather more neutral realm of the dead (hades, or in Hebrew thought, sheol).

Others state rather confidently that when Christ utters “It is finished,” the work of redemption is complete and therefore there is no more to do. This is clearly false. The work of redemption is absolutely not finished (at least) until the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is his victory over death. Moreover, the intercession of Christ still continues, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, and the final judgment, where those in Christ will be declared not guilty, is still to come. And redemption applied is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. So one must be rather cautious about what “It is finished” means. Clearly it has to be limited to Christ’s suffering on the cross.

The original complaint to the Reformed Churches in Australia was apparently operating on the assumption that Jesus physically went to hell. That would be a new doctrine never heard of in the church, since orthodox believers have always confessed that Jesus’ physical body

Some who are considered evangelical leaders reject the descent into hell phrase in the creed, apparently unaware that by doing so they separate themselves from orthodox, universal Christian faith. John Piper, who considers himself Reformed, rejects the doctrine without much analysis. This is ironic, since no Reformed church would recognize as Reformed anyone who rejects an article of an ecumenical creed. He also refers to himself as a “Calvinist,” but Calvin would not recognize as a kindred spirit anyone who rejected this or any other article of the creed (let alone anyone who rejected infant baptism, as Piper does.) Wayne Grudem (whose theological positions are similar to Piper’s) also rejects the doctrine, also on mistaken grounds. Both put themselves perilously near the fringe of orthodox Christian faith by doing so. Neither seem to understand this. I suspect this has something to do with an overly rigid sense of sola scriptura, and a lack of understanding of how the Reformers honored universal Christian tradition as embodied in the creeds, as well as how they found more than adequate biblical grounds for the descensus. They also seem to care little about the effect such a selective recitation of the creed would have upon ecumenical relations.

Reading the 2000 report will save anyone who wants to study this issue from a multitude of theological sins.