Biblical Theology and the Session
James S. Gidley
Many centuries ago, Tertullian posed the question, "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" When you think of the answer that Tertullian gave to that question, you might think that it is also the answer to the question, "What has Biblical Theology to do with the Session?"Nothing.
After all, isn't Biblical Theology an impractical, scholarly pursuit, and isn't Session work the epitome of hands-on practicality? What do they have in common? Worse yet, some might even conclude from the alleged impracticality of Biblical Theology that a devotion to it would be positively inimical to faithful Session work.
I maintain that the truth of the matter is far otherwise. In prosecuting the case for the mutual strengthening that Biblical Theology and sound Session work contribute to each other, I will be addressing the following question: "What difference does it make to a Session that the ministry of the Word is committed to a redemptive-historical1 hermeneutic?" To state the question another way: "What should a congregation and Session look like that is shepherded by a redemptive-historical ministry?"
1 For the purpose of this lecture, I am taking the term redemptive-historical as synonymous with Biblical-theological. What I mean by a redemptive-historical ministry is a ministry that places primary emphasis on the mighty acts of God in history. Another way of saying it is a ministry that gives primary emphasis to the historia salutis (the history of salvation) and only secondary importance to the ordo salutis (the plan of salvation, the order of salvation, or the process of salvation in the individual sinner).
It is not that we should look for something radically different from what the Reformed Churches have exhibited at their best. Much less should we expect something eccentric or bizarre. Rather, the characteristics of a redemptive-historical ministry, consistently carried out, will be just the characteristics that we should expect from a faithful Reformed ministry. Any ministry, not consciously redemptive-historical, yet otherwise faithfully Reformed, will exhibit these same characteristics. But I am claiming that the redemptive-historical ministry has an inner strength that conduces well to faithful Reformed ecclesiastical life.
Likewise, we must recognize that not everything that claims to be a redemptive-historical ministry really carries out its intentions well. Given the criticism that is leveled against redemptive-historical ministry in some quarters of the Reformed household of faith, one of my aims today is to encourage you to the sort of faithfulness that will be the most effective rebuttal of such criticism.
Redemptive History and the Church's Confession of Faith
First, the redemptive-historical ministry should be devoted to the Confession and Catechisms. In my experience of eighteen years sitting under two redemptive-historical ministries, I have found this to be so. I have come to believe that this is not an anomaly, but a requirement and a natural outgrowth of the redemptive-historical approach.
At first glance, it may seem that a concern for Biblical theology and a concern for the Confession and Catechisms would be unrelated or even antagonistic. After all, it can be argued that the Confession and Catechisms are systematic statements of the faith. Wouldn't it be more natural to expect a devotion to the Confession and Catechisms in a ministry that was committed to systematic theology? And devotion to systematic theology is often associated with careful and precise treatment of the plan of salvation (ordo salutis). Wouldn't we expect more devotion to the Confession and Catechisms in such a ministry?
Yet in the churches which I have mentioned, there is a strong and sustained emphasis on memorization of the Shorter Catechism. Anomaly or outgrowth of principle?
In answer to this, let me simply observe that the strength of our Confession and Catechisms is that they are redemptive-historical as well as systematic. Further, I will argue that they are first redemptive-historical and only secondarily systematic.
This feature struck me when I first began reading the Confessional documents. I was coming to the Reformed faith from Arminianism and general evangelicalism, and one of the things I loved about the Reformed faith was its logical consistency and its amenability to systematic statement. More specifically, I was focused on the plan of salvation and was coming to love the Calvinistic ordo salutis as opposed to the Arminian. Then I came to questions 27 and 28 of the Shorter Catechism: "Wherein did Christ's humiliation consist?" "Wherein consisteth Christ's exaltation?" These questions and answers seemed to me to be out of place in a systematic exposition of the faith. Obviously they have an irreducible element of redemptive history in them. They cannot be reduced to statements of timeless ideals or doctrines. At first glance, they do not seem to say anything about the ordo salutis. They make no sense without redemptive history.
But it is not that these questions are unique or out of place. It is simply that I could not reduce them to a near-sighted focus on the plan of salvation. Looking back at the preceding questions of the catechism, you can readily discern a redemptive-historical structure throughout. Beginning with the Person and nature of God, the Catechism passes on to the decrees of God, creation, providence, the fall, redemption through Christ, the application of redemption, and the believer's eschatological hope. Questions 4-38 of the Shorter Catechism, devoted to telling us what we are to believe concerning God, bear on their face a redemptive-historical structure. They are ordered by a sequence of time.
On further reflection, it should be evident why this is so. The religion of the Bible is a religion that centers on the mighty acts of God in history. Therefore any true expression of the faith of the Bible must be essentially an exposition of the mighty acts of God.
Is this feature unique to the Shorter Catechism? Let us take a brief tour of Schaff's Creeds of Christendom to find out. Schaff begins with Scripture Confessions.2 Most of these are very short, and focus on the confession of God as the Lord, or of Christ as the Son of God (Dt. 6:4, Jn 1:49, Mt. 16:16, Jn. 6:68, 69, Jn 20:28, Acts 8:37, 1 Cor. 8:6). He also cites Matthew 28:19, 20 which speaks of teaching "all things whatsoever I have commanded you." He finally cites two passages that briefly summarize the content of that teaching, 1 Timothy 3:16 and Hebrews 6:1, 2. It will be well to consider these two texts explicitly:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory. (1 Tm. 3:16, NKJV)
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (Heb. 6:1, 2, NKJV)
It is remarkable that these two texts seem neatly to divide between them the historia salutis and the ordo salutis. 1 Timothy 3:16 is remarkable in its resolute focus on redemptive history, so much so that the believer's faith is not even spoken of in the active voice. Rather, we have Christ "believed on in the world." The believer recedes from view and the important thing is that Christ is in fact believed on.3
2 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II, pp. 3-8, Baker Book House, 1977 (edition originally published ca. 1889).
3 Schaff cites a number of other passages as "allusions to creeds," including that classic summary of the gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4 (NKJV): "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. . . ." The redemptive-historical focus is once again unmistakable.
Equally remarkable is the focus of Hebrews 6:1, 2 on the application of redemption. Here in the heart of what could be argued is the quintessential redemptive-historical book of the New Testament, we have this summary of the elementary principles of Christ in distinctively ordo salutis language.
But you will note the parallels between the two texts. As you know, the ordo salutis is based on the historia salutis. What happens to Christ happens to his people. What happens to Christ's people has already happened to Christ. At any rate, we do not have simply a progression to a logical organization of "Biblical truths". Rather, we have an ordo salutis which is itself based on a progression of events in time, taking this character from the historia salutis on which it is based.
Let us now turn to that fountain of all ecclesiastical creeds, the Apostles' Creed. I know you are familiar with it, but it will be helpful to have its words distinctly before us.4
I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen
It is customary to regard the Apostle's Creed as fundamentally Trinitarian, given its threefold statement of faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is most certainly true, and it gives us confidence that the early Church did indeed believe in the Triune God of the Bible.
4 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 45.
Nevertheless, I would ask you to take a closer look at the content of faith that is subsumed under the three headings. What we are given here is not a discourse on the ontological Trinity. Rather, the Apostle's Creed is built on the economic Trinity. The creed focuses our attention on the mighty acts of God in historyspecifically, the mighty acts of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.5 In doing so, the creed sounds a distinctly Pauline note. The middle section captures the essence of 1 Timothy 3:16 and elaborates it. The last section captures Paul's emphasis on the Spirit as the Spirit of the resurrection at work even now in the community of the Spirit, the church.
I would even suggest that the Apostle's creed divides redemptive history into three ages: the age of the Father, which is the age of the first creation; the age of the Son, his appearance in the flesh, his resurrection, and so forth; and the age of the Spirit, which is also the age of the Church. Of course, the creed gives no countenance to modalism, but this is because the creed is structured not ontologically, but redemptive-historically. There are successive ages of redemptive history, marked off by the mighty acts of God in history.
It is instructive to compare the orthodox Apostles' Creed with the version professed by Arius6:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty;
And in the Lord Jesus Christ, his Son, who was begotten of him before all ages, the Divine Logos, through whom all things were made, both those in the heavens and those on the earth; who came down and was made flesh; and suffered; and rose again; and ascended to the heavens; and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost; and in the resurrection of the flesh; and in the life of the world to come; and in a kingdom of
5 Schaff simply remarks of the ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian): "They set forth the articles of faith in the form of facts rather than dogmas." Vol. I, p. 13. Later he says specifically of the Apostles' Creed: "It is not a logical statement of abstract doctrines, but a profession of living facts and saving truths." Vol. I, p. 15.
6 Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 28-29.
heaven; and in one Catholic Church of God which extends to the ends of the earth.
Schaff rightly remarks: "It is heretical not by what it says, but by what it omits."7 Notice that among the things that Arius omits are the specific references to Mary and Pontius Pilate. The orthodox creed is rooted in real history and recalls the names of real people. The creed of Arius suppresses these things.
But of vastly greater importance, Arius omits the cross and the grave. It is this mighty act of God that carried away our sins. It should then come as no surprise that he also omits the forgiveness of sins under the third heading.
Time would fail us to go on to an examination of the other creeds that Schaff has collected for us. But once again, I would place before you the principle: Since the character of the Biblical faith is redemptive-historical, any creed that truly expresses that faith must also be redemptive-historical.
It is true that in the providence of God, the Church had to declare herself on the ontological Trinity, and that other ontological questions arose in the history of the Church that required the Church to make further statements of faith in an ontological mold. But I would still contend that the organizing principle of the Church's confession is not ontology but redemptive history.8
To return to the question posed initially: "What should a congregation and Session look like that is shepherded by a redemptive-historical ministry?" It should have an unabashed love for the Confessions of the Church, and it should have a sustained program of inculcating the Catechism in both children and adults.
7 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 28
8 Chapter IX of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "Of Free Will", affords us with another example. If you come to this chapter with a philosophical bent, you would expect an ontological treatment of the nature of the will. And you will be sorely disappointed. In- stead, you will find a strong emphasis on redemptive history: "Man, in his state of innocency . . . Man, by his fall into a state of sin, . . . When God converts a sinner . . ." and finally "in the state of glory." Yes, there is ordo salutis here also, but the backbone is redemptive history. Contrast this with the philosophical treatment of the subject by Jonathan Edwards in his treatise, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will.
Redemptive History and Church Discipline
One of the chief responsibilities of the elders of the Church is to maintain discipline. Therefore, I could not be true to my task of relating Biblical Theology to the Session if I did not speak on this issue as well. Here we may ask: "What is the importance of Church discipline to a redemptive-historical ministry?" Or: "Will Church discipline in a redemptive-historical ministry have a distinctive look or feel?"
At first glance, we are again faced with what may appear to be an antagonistic relationship. One might argue: theonomists and redemptive-historicists are at opposite ends of the Reformed ecclesiastical spectrum. Theonomists are very zealous for formal church discipline, so much so that they seem to transform the Church into a court of law. It follows that redemptive-historicists, being the polar opposites of theonomists, must have a relative disregard, if not disdain, for church discipline.9
Once again, the reality is far different from superficial appearances. Once again, I can appeal to my experience. The redemptive-historical ministries in which I have served as an elder have not been lax in the exercise of discipline. Once again, I have the task of arguing that my experience is not anomalous. In fact I would put before you the thesis that a redemptive-historical ministry cannot long be maintained in the absence of the faithful exercise of church discipline.
This can also be illustrated by example. I know of a pastor who is devoted to the redemptive-historical hermeneutic. He found himself in a pastorate with a weak Session, which would not discipline serious offenses like fornication. In frustration, this pastor began to preach moralistically. I take this example as paradigmatic for what happens to a redemptive-historical ministry when church discipline is neglected.
9 The reader will note that as I am trying to dispel a caricature of a redemptive-historical ministry, I am setting it over against a caricature of a theonomic ministry.
To paint with a broader brush, I would ask you to consider the history of the Erastian churches of the Reformation, that is, the churches that accepted the rule of the State over the Church. In particular, consider England, where Hooker argues that the Church and the State are coterminous: each contains exactly the same people. (Richard Hooker was the classic apologist for the Anglican ecclesiastical establishment in the late 16th century, i. e., in pre-Westminster-Assembly England.) He says: "[W]ithin this realm of England . . . one society is both the Church and commonwealth . . . . In a word, our estate is according to the pattern of God's own ancient elect people, which people was not part of them the commonwealth, and part of them the Church of God, but the selfsame people whole and entire were both under one chief Governor . . . ."10 In Hooker's polity, the State is the nation viewed as a body politic, in which the people are viewed as subjects or citizens. The Church is the nation viewed from its ecclesiastical side and all the people are viewed as members of the Church. In such an ecclesiastical settlement, we also have an almost universal outward acceptance of the truth of the Scriptures and the cardinal doctrines of the faith.
We could view what happens to a Church under these circumstances from a variety of angles, but I want to focus on the reaction of those most concerned for the Word of God and the purity of the Church. In England, we see the rise of the Puritans, who not only are staunch Calvinists in the main, but who also become noted for a severely experiential sort of preaching. They know that many professing members of the Church of England are not true believers. How shall they preach to them? One way is to preach the law, to bring the unconverted under conviction.
Another focus of Puritanism is centered in the assurance of salvation. You see the problem: when anybody and everybody is regarded to be a member of the visible Church, when to be an Englishman means to be a professing Christian, when everyone acknowledges the "truth of the Christian religion", and
10 Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, An Abridged Edition, ed. by A. S. McGrade and Brian Vickers, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1975, p. 342. The quotation comes from the Eight Book, Chapter 1, in which Hooker is dealing with the question whether the supreme rule in the Church can be held by the King. In this context, the "one chief Governor" refers to the king.
when effective church discipline is made nearly impossible, how is one to tell the sheep from the goats? The answer is that preachers must instruct their hearers on how to be experts at self-examination,11 because the only kind of discipline that will be available will be self-discipline.
We then have a ministry that becomes focused first and foremost on the ordo salutis, so that church members, most of whom are assumed to be only nominally Christian, may rightly discern whether they have experienced justification, adoption, sanctification, and so on. Combined with this is a strong emphasis on the "evidences" of being a true believer.12 These evidences inevitably take on a strong tinge of moralism: what should you look for in yourself to distinguish you from the mass of nominal Christians in the Church?
So we have the law to convict the unregenerate and the law to provide evidences to the regenerate. It is not that these two uses of the law of God are in themselves illegitimate. Quite the contrary! They are indeed Biblical, and they are embedded in the very structure of the Shorter Catechism. The problem is the ecclesiastical environment in which the law is preached, and the specific emphasis laid upon it.
One way in which this emphasis manifests itself is in the mode of address to the congregation in preaching. The apostle Paul freely addresses the visible church as saints (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, etc.) A true Puritan preacher would be reluctant to do this. He knows that he is addressing a mixed multitude of saints and sinners, believers and hypocrites, godly and wicked. Worse yet, he "knows" that many of the hypocrites think they are saints, and some of the saints may perhaps think they are hypocrites. At all events, he must be careful not to give anyone false hopes by a careless, indiscriminate greeting to the congregation.
11 Self-examination is clearly commanded in the Bible (1 Cor. 11:28). What I am criticizing here is the preponderant reliance on self-examination as an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to make up for deficient or non-existent church discipline.
12 For example, Jonathan Edwards opens A Treatise concerning Religious Affections as follows: "There is no question of greater importance to mankind, and that it more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those who are in favour with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?" (emphasis his). The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. I, p. 234, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1974.
In one sense, this seemingly small matterwho studies Paul's greetings anyway?opens up the very heart of the issue. If you cannot address the visible church as the people of God, you do not have a New Testament view of the church.
When we cross the Atlantic with the pilgrim fathers to New England, we initially have a somewhat more hopeful situation. An effort is made to confine church membership to those who are "visible saints". Yet we still have an environment in which everyone perforce acknowledges the "truth of the Christian religion," and we have laws requiring every citizen, church member or not, to attend worship. Once again, we have a ministry that is strongly focused on instructing believers in the evidences of being true participants in the ordo salutis. For example, we have Jonathan Edwards expecting an age (probably the millennium) in which there will be much clearer views among professing Christians concerning the evidences of true piety in the heart: "[T]here will come a time of much greater purity in the church, than has been in ages past. And one great reason of it will be, that at that time, God will give much greater light to his people, to distinguish between true religion and counterfeits . . . ."13 He proceeds to give fourteen evidences that one is a true believer, and I have some recollection that he was among the more frugal in multiplying the number of evidences among authors of this type of literature in his day. I must confess that I'm in trouble, because I can't remember what these fourteen evidences are!
The latter history of the New England churches is a melancholy tale, illustrating once again the importance of church discipline. The strict experiential standards for church membership contribute to a situation in which the minority of the populace, perhaps the small minority, are actually church members. At the same time, the whole populace is required to attend worship. In these circumstance, it becomes impossible for the ministry to be supported by the voluntary donations of the church members. Within the first, Mayflower generation, the State intervenes by passing laws to support the Church through taxation on all residents, except in Boston, which is able to maintain its ministers
13 Ibid., p. 235. He is not here speaking of religion in an objective sense, as Christianity vs. Islam, or orthodox Christianity vs. a cult. Rather he is speaking of religion in a subjective sense; his distinction is between true and counterfeit professors of the true religion.
by voluntary contributions.14
Gradually the theory develops that ministers are not only ecclesiastical officers, but officers of the State: after all, they are supported by State-mandated tax levies. The next downward step in ecclesiastical practice follows naturally from this: when a pulpit is vacant, a new minister is selected not by the vote of the church members only (as one would expect in Congregationalism), but by the vote of the entire tax-paying populace. This is codified in Massachusetts in 1692an early instance of the principle of "No taxation without representation."15
Doctrinally at the same period, we have the rise of the "half-way covenant" which allows baptism to the children of non-members of the church, so long as the parents admit the truth of the Christian religion and do not live scandalous lives. In this environment, it seems inevitable that the churches would become ripe for revivalism, another form of experience-centered ministry of the Word. Yet despite the Great Awakening of the 1730's and 40's, the slide of the church cannot be halted, and much of New England Puritanism degenerates into Pelagianism and Unitarianism by the beginning of the nineteenth century.
What is the point of tracing this history? I maintain that the failure to practice church discipline, including Biblical principles of Church government (such as the distinct government of the church as opposed to the civil government), inevitably distorts the ministry of the Word. And that distortion must be specifically away from the historia salutis. First, in the absence of church discipline, preaching must focus on making hearers experts in self-discipline.
14 William G. McLoughlin covers the ground from the point of view of the dissenters, principally Baptists, Quakers, and Anglicans, who resented the taxes and sometimes refused to pay them. See New England Dissent, 1630-1833, especially pp. 60-61, and Parts II and III, pp. 113-243, entitled "The Baptists' Efforts for Exemption from Religious taxes, 1692-1734", and "Quaker and Anglican Efforts for Exemption from religious Taxes 1692-1734." Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1971.
15 A variety of court cases complicates the situation somewhat, giving the citizens a limited veto power over the choice of the congregation, and specifying that disputes between church members and townspeople should be settled by a council drawn from five neighboring churches. See McLoughlin, pp. 126-127. He concludes the discussion with the remark: "In most cases involving the dissenters, however, ecclesiastical conflicts were settled not by church councils but by the courts and the legislature." (p. 127). We find ourselves, despite principle to the contrary, in a situation effectively the same as in Hooker's church/commonwealth.
This requires an inordinate focus on the ordo salutis and "evidences." Second, the amalgamation of the Church with the State leads to a civil theory of the nature and usefulness of the ministry. Taxation of all residents to support the ministry is justified on the grounds of the purely civil good that the ministry does for the entire community. That civil good is primarily the result of encouraging hearers to be morally upright citizens. Thus the ministry of the Word is given another strong shove in the direction of moralism.
I hope that you do not miss the contemporary relevance of this point. As American evangelicals have become increasingly strident about the civil benefits of evangelical religion, what we are hearing is in effect a plea to return to precisely this sort of ministry of the Word which has lost its single-minded focus on the mighty acts of God and sees a major portion of its responsibility to be the amelioration of social evil by encouraging good morals based on Biblical values.
Another prevalent effect of this approach is the belief in the superiority of self-examination to church discipline. Now clearly the Scriptures require self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28); what I am commenting on here is the relative weight that is given to it. Church discipline, it will be said, is external, sporadic, unable to judge the heart, faulty, partial, etc. Self-examination, on the other hand, has direct access to the heart, can be continual (if not strictly continuous), has full information, etc. Plausible as this reasoning might sound, it conceals an exaltation of self and dependence on self. A genuine estimate of the power of self-examination would be much humbler, as David says in Psalm 19:12 "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults."
I would add that I have too often observed among those who overestimate the value of self-examination and personal piety that they are keenly aware of others' sins and strangely blind to some of their own. It is not that the better devotees of self-examination do not see this problem of the myopia, if not blindness, of the heart and mind. But their response to it seems to be once again to seek to make the individual believer a more skillful expert at spiritual self-microscopy. In the end, there is no escape from self.
I am speaking in part from personal experience at this point. Under the grip of this kind of teaching, as much as I might be told that the escape was to "look
to Christ", I only made "looking to Christ" another spiritual evidence that I had to discern in myself. Was I looking to Christ properly, fully, solely? Was I really looking to Christ? Of course there is a style of preaching that fosters just this sort of inversion: "Obviously, young man, your problem is that you need to look to Christ, and if you're still having problems, it can't be the fault of Christ, it must be some defect in the way you are looking to Him." Thus the comfort of Christ and the gospel is snatched away at the very time it is being presented!
It seems to me that the root problem here is the absorption with personal piety and salvation. I know that some people will immediately accuse me of antinomianism, of advocating impiety. But let them rest for a moment while I make a Biblical point. The chief end of man is not first and foremost to be sure to make it to heaven, but to glorify God, and thus to enjoy Him forever. The center of true piety is not the inward, reflexive movement of self-examination and self-absorption, but the outgoing movement of seeking the glory of God. And inward, reflexive movements of strenuous effort to purify the self can inhibit the outgoing movement of love to one's neighbors, particularly to the people of God.
My release from this endless spiral of self-absorption was in redemptive-historical teaching. I was led out of this bondage by hearing the faithful preaching of the mighty acts of God in history. I saw that the Bible was not centered on me and my personal salvation, but on the grand march of God through history, directing all things to glorify Himself, and centered specifically in the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. We return once again to 1 Timothy 3:16, "Great is the mystery of godliness . . ."!
A few years ago, in the midst of a dry spot in my spiritual life, I began to ask myself if I really knew Christ. I am not speaking of declining assurance of salvation, though this was in some way involved. Rather it struck me that for all my years of Christian experience, for all my knowledge of the Bible, did I really have clear views about who my Savior was? Did I really have an intimate knowledge of my Lord?
I was drawn to the gospel according to Mark. I was struck by the grand march of God through the gospel. It is not so much that Jesus came to his people, but that he passed by them and called them to join him. He bursts on
the scene in the gospel of Mark and peremptorily calls us to repent and believe in the gospel. What you see in Mark is a Jesus who is resolutely on the march. When he passes your way, you must decide whether to remain preoccupied with your existing concernseven if they are the concerns of pietyor to drop everything and become a captive in his victorious march.
The center of this gospel is not me and my salvation, but Christ and his victorious march. And that march takes him not only through paths of splendor, but first through the valley of the shadow of death, to the cursed death of the cross.
You see, faithful preacher of Christ, if you want the people to look to Christ, you must avoid the trap of making them examine their act of looking. You must present Christ to them, in his Divine majesty, in his Incarnation, in his three offices, in his humiliation and exaltation, in his resurrection glory, in his present enthronement at the right hand of God. Call upon the people to believe, to be sure, but focus their attention on Christ, not on their believing.
I realize that my arguments from church history and from my experience are anecdotal. From a scientific point of view, I have too few data points to confirm my case. Yet I would propose to you this hypothesis, and call upon the historians among you to take it up if you will: There is a synergistic relationship between redemptive-historical preaching and the exercise of faithful church disciple. In a more general sense, I believe that it would be fruitful to study the general historical relationship between the exercise of church discipline, including the form of church government, and the character of the preaching of the Word.16
The synergism can be seen in both directions. I have maintained at the outset that redemptive-historical preaching depends on the faithful exercise of church discipline and cannot be maintained without it. But I also maintain that
16 Theologically, I could also express my point by means of the Reformed understanding of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The Reformed have maintained that there are two keys: the preaching of the Word and the exercise of discipline. By the preaching, the kingdom of heaven is opened to those who repent and believe. By discipline, the kingdom doors are shut against those who prove themselves to be impenitent. It is my contention that neither key can long endure on its own, nor be expected to do the work of the other key.
faithful church discipline cannot be sustained over the long haul without the support of redemptive-historical preaching. Why? Because it is always a fatal error to suppose that the purity and piety of the church can be maintained by preaching morality. The power of godliness is the mighty acts of God in history. We have come back once more to 1 Timothy 3:16: Do not miss the significance of the text! Paul tells us "great is the mystery of godliness" (eusebeia = godly life, religion). Godliness, the practice of the Christian life! And the mystery of it is that is all about Christ: "manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory." If you would have a godly church, then preach Christ, and the mighty acts of Christ. For if you take aim at godliness directly by preaching godliness, you will not attain it.
Now I am not advocating that the congregation should never be addressed in the imperative mood. The New Testament is replete with proper commands to the people of Godmore of this in the following sections. But what I am saying is that the gravitational pull of moralism is very strong, all the stronger because it acts on us unawares. We live in the very environment of moralism. As Benjamin Warfield, in speaking of the "New Divinity" promoted at Yale University by N. W. Taylor, and the probability of its effect on Charles Finney, said: "Pelagianism, unfortunately, does not wait to be imported from New Haven, and does not require inculcatingit is the instinctive thought of the natural man."17
17 Benjamin B. Warfield, Perfectionism, ed. by Samuel G. Craig, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958, p. 18. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones also comments on this problem with regard to covenant children: "The particular trouble with which we are dealing tends, I find, to be common among those who have been brought up in a religious manner . . ." (it is clear from the context that he means specifically a Christian manner). "They have assumed that they are right about the first things, but they never have been right about their justification, and it is here that the devil causes confusion. It suits him well that such people should be concerned about sanctification and holiness and various other things . . . . In a sense it is a masterpiece of Satan. He will even encourage us to be righteous as long as he has us confused at this point," Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965, pp. 24, 26. I interpret this problem rather differently from Lloyd-Jones. He sees it as a problem to be cured; I see it as a problem to be prevented. What is wrong with our preaching of sanctification that leads covenant children into this confusion in the first place?
To return to the question posed initially: "What should a congregation and Session look like that is shepherded by a redemptive-historical ministry?"It should be characterized by the faithful, loving exercise of church discipline. Without this, the redemptive-historical ministry cannot long endure; and without the redemptive-historical ministry, the faithful exercise of church discipline cannot long endure.
Redemptive History and Character of the Session
I am convinced that the redemptive-historical ministry will place a characteristic stamp on the life of the people of God. I will attempt to sketch the main features of this life in two stages: first, by looking at the character of the Session and its shepherding of the flock; second, by looking at the life of the flock itself.
In both sketches, we must give attention to the redemptive-historical perspective on the ordo salutis. Yes, we must not forget that there is an ordo salutis! Yet the Pauline perspective on the ordo salutis is precisely to see it in intimate connection with the historia salutis. In Paul's words (2 Cor. 5:14, 15 NKJV):
For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died, and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.
Paul sees us in union with Christ, not simply in union with his Person, but in union with his death and resurrection. I think I need not multiply quotations to demonstrate this point to you. What this means is that we find the pattern of the Christian life in the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.
First and foremost, this requires elders who are willing to give themselves sacrificially for the flock. The exhortation that Peter gives to elders in 1 Peter 5:1-4 is striking in its conformity to the Pauline representation. Peter refers to the sufferings of Christ, and Christ as the chief Shepherd, evidently turning our thoughts to the pattern of Christ's self-sacrifice in shepherding. The text resonates with the prophecy of Ezekiel 34, in which God denounces the shep
herds of Israel who feed themselves rather than the flock, and foretells his own coming to be the One true Shepherd.
What will that sacrificial shepherding look like? For one thing, it will require a costly investment of time. Feeding sheep may be streamlined to some extent, but caring for ailing sheep is a time-consuming, one-at-a-time affair. The very requirements of a loving discipline will necessitate the expenditure of large blocks of time on frustrating and discouraging labor.
As a simple example, you well know how ailing sheep are inclined to bolt from the flock rather than be cared for. The easy path is simply to erase the names of such sheep from the membership rolls. But the good shepherd will leave the ninety and nine in the pasture and go out to seek that one sheep who has wandered astray. This will often mean fruitless attempts to contact a member who doesn't want to talk to you. And then it may require a lengthy process of formal church discipline, formally citing the accused, citing witnesses, citing the accused again after he does not appear the first time, and so on. Meanwhile some of the other sheep may begin to murmur: "Why are you so long away from the flock? Can't you handle these obvious problems quickly?" Yes, we can, but not with the love of the good shepherd. Love requires patience.
For a discipline that does not partake of the seeking love of Christ is not worthy to be called church discipline. A discipline that takes the form merely of a censorship of morals may be appropriate for the civil magistrate, but not for the church of Jesus Christ. The whole process of formal discipline must be suffused with a spirit of love for the offender and earnest desire to seek his repentance.
Such a ministry is evidently incompatible with much of what is advocated by the Church Growth Movement. If you want your church to grow rapidly, you would be better advised to look out for an additional ninety and nine docile sheep rather than to waste time chasing after the one that has gone astray. I do not see how a church devoted to such shepherding can ever become a mega-church. Our Session seems to have all we can handle with about one hundred members.
Again, it is easier for a ministry to expand rapidly if it seeks people from a homogeneous ethnic, social, and economic background than if it seeks to
shepherd all the sheep that the Lord sends to it. It will be more time-consuming and frustrating to deal with a heterogeneous flock.
All this means that true shepherds may well have to labor in obscurity, never regarded as successful by the public or even the contemporary ecclesiastical world. I have often thought that in our day the price of integrity is obscurity.
One particular cross of obscurity must be borne by the ruling elder who is committed to a redemptive-historical approach and yet finds himself serving in a church that is not sympathetic to a redemptive-historical ministry. What should such an elder do? Bear the cross and serve meekly. Exhibit Christ-like, self-sacrificing love.18
To return to the question posed initially: "What should a Session look like that is shepherded by a redemptive-historical ministry?" It should be characterized by self-sacrificing devotion to the congregation. It should be very reluctant to let sheep wander away.
Redemptive History and the Character of the Congregation
As you know, the detractors of the redemptive-historical ministry criticize us for being impractical. We are reluctant to preach "how-to" sermons and to organize the congregation into a well-oiled self-help and social betterment machine. Of course, as the critics would have it, if you do not organize and orchestrate an ambitious program, then the congregation will be stagnant, lacking in discipleship and service, lacking in power to influence the community. In short, you will foster a passive sort of Christianity in which church members are simply spectators of the drama of redemptive history.
Once again, the truth of the matter is far different from what at first glance it would appear. Again, I can appeal to my experience. I remember a friend who
18 I am assuming that the church's ministry is otherwise sound according to Reformed faith and practice.
had been in the church at Morgantown, West Virginia for a time, and then a career move took him away. He later came back for a visit, complaining that the new church he was attending had programs to promote fellowship among the members, but, he said, "In Morgantown, we just did it." When people love each other, you don't have to resort to gimmicks to get them to spend time with each other and to help each other when in need. When they do not love each other, the gimmicks are hollow substitutes for the real thing.
The churches in which I have sat under redemptive-historical ministries for the past eighteen years have been notable for their care for each other. In the past several weeks, my family has been the recipient of extraordinary care as my wife has been recovering from a serious head trauma. We have had meals brought in, people come in to clean, people to stay with my wife while I have been away, encouragement given, and all with a spirit of cheerfulness as Paul requires in Romans 12:8: "he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness." To be sure, some of the helpers have been Christian friends from Geneva College and/or the local Christian school which my children attend, but the center of the support and the majority of the help have been from the Church. This is the more remarkable in that Grace Church is not a "community church." Our membership is scattered over an area of more than a twenty-mile radius from the church building. This is a long distance in Western Pennsylvania!
It has been further remarkable that this kind of aid has been offered to my family at a time when the congregation is reeling from the death of our beloved pastor, Mr. Charles Dennison. And the family most helpful to us were struggling with a daughter's chronic illness and the death of the husband's mother during the time when they helped us. The love of Christ knows no bounds!
Is this "coincidental?" I think not. A redemptive-historical ministry stresses the union of the people of God with Christ. We do not encourage our people to be spectators of redemptive-history, but to realize that they are participants in it. If we show a reluctance to apply the text to the people, it is because we believe that they are already in the text. I believe that such a ministry as ours, carried out truly, will have two prominent effects on the people of God.
First, it will draw out from the people a conformity to the cross and resurrection of Christ. As with the elders, so with the people. The measure of the
love required of us is the measure of Christ's love. The escape from legalism should also mean an escape from the invariable concomitant of legalism: the tendency to reduce the law of God to manageable, keepable proportions. The love of Christ "demands my soul, my life, my all." I can never say, "I have done enough, I have kept myself pure, now leave me alone."
Second, conformity to Christ will lead our people to a more profound sense of the unity of the body of Christ. Individualism has no place in a community in which "One has died for all and therefore all have died." I have recently been going through Romans with our adult class, and have just completed chapter 12. I have been struck with Paul's persistent and powerful teaching in this chapter on the oneness of the body and all that it entails: and that message is certainly not confined to the discussion of the gifts in verses 3-8. We should see that one of the most powerful motives keeping our erring sheep from running away should be this bond of love. How could one conceive of abandoning the body in which I have found my life, which has been made my family? How could one conceive of leaving that body in which I have myself been the recipient of such tender care, such godly instruction, such gentle understanding?
Yet though I have been privileged to observe such manifold expressions of love in the church, I have also been grieved to see that love spurned in too many instances. And it has been spurned not only by those who have been intent on pursuing a course of known sin in their lives, but by those who have regarded our ministry as too indulgent of sin. I will illustrate my point with a single instance that is representative of other cases.
A few years ago, a family came to Grace Church in desperate need. I do not recall precisely how we came in contact with them, but they were on welfare and somehow had lost their place of residence. For a time, we allowed them to stay in the church building, and gave them significant diaconal aid. In due course, we helped them find a place to live and get settled in it. The family was initially very appreciative, the more so because they were professing Christians who were already convinced of the truth of the Reformed faith.
Sadly, the good times did not last long. This family complained that our preaching did not contain enough denunciation of sin and sinners. People
have to be reminded how sinful they are! In particular, we were too lax about the observance of the Sabbath. We actually tolerated conversations after church that did not directly bear on the Bible or theology. (You must understand that our people like to linger after worship for up to an hour or more in conversation: such is their love for each other's company.) On top of that, they observed an elder's child with a Power Rangers doll. Didn't we know that the Power Rangers were the tools of the devil?
Of course, our attempts to remonstrate with this family about their procrastination and unseemly selectiveness in seeking gainful employment met with vigorous cries of "Foul!" It seems that sinners need to be reminded of sin, but not too particularly! Soon they left us with these complaints, as if our kindnesses to them had never been.
Doesn't every church suffer from these sad defections? Is there anything in this that is distinctive of a redemptive-historical ministry? Perhaps not, but I have selected this example because it illustrates a phenomenon that I have seen too often: the accusation that the Session and ministry of the church is "soft on sin." The general accusation is that a redemptive-historical ministry is insufficiently concerned with holiness.
At the same time, I have seen in such accusers a distressing disregard of the demands of love and compassion, a seeming obliviousness to manifest kindnesses of an extraordinary nature shown to the malcontents themselves. Perhaps this is just the nature of self-righteousness, but I see something more specific at work.
I see in this attitude a failure to perceive the nature of holiness as being characterized precisely by self-sacrificing love, Christ-like love. There is also a failure to perceive the covenant bonds that bind together the visible people of God. Piety is individualistic for such critics. How else could the manifest outpourings of love upon these people have failed to elicit sufficient reciprocal affection to keep them from leaving?
For that matter, why do churches split over trifles? Why does a chart of Presbyterian history look like "spaghetti at right angles?"19 Might it be that we
19 A remark of the Rev. Gordon Keddie of the RPCNA which I heard about ten years ago.
have lost sight of the primacy of love in Christian ethics and sanctification?
I know what will be said. It is the liberals who speak of "love" in order to provide a screen for their unbelief. But is it the liberals only who speak of love? Don't Jesus and his apostles have much to say on the matter? You see it is not only in dogmatics that liberals have evacuated Biblical words of their true content and poured new content into them. So it is also in ethics. Machen quite rightly protested the liberal co-optation of words like redemption, resurrection, salvation, etc. But we ought to be just as indignant about the liberal capture of the word "love." We do not cease to use the word resurrection because liberals mean something else by it. Neither should we shy away from love.
I appeal to you to give more attention to a redemptive-historical account of Christian ethics. I believe that this will restore love to its rightful prominence in our thinking. A cursory reading of our catechism may give the impression that "love" is simply a convenient double heading to summarize the two tables of the law. If you really want insight into the nature of holiness, you must attend to the ten commandments. Such a viewpoint discounts the revolutionary advance that Jesus makes in ethics by subsuming the ten commandments under the two great commandments to love.
For one thing, Jesus demonstrates once and for all that the ten commandmentseight of which are stated as prohibitionsare not merely negative, but positive. The commandments are not merely a boundary which one must not cross, but a compass showing us which way to go. Our catechisms catch the significance of this in their treatment of both the duties required and the sins forbidden in each commandment. It is no coincidence that the case which I have described to you involved people who seem to view holiness primarily in terms of what one does not do.
In particular, I find the New Testament treatment of "Love your neighbor as yourself" fascinating. First of all, this commandment can hardly be said to be given prominence in the Old Testament. It occurs in Leviticus 19you find the verse!buried in a conglomeration of moral commandments (nine of the ten commandments are repeated in some form, but not in order), civil ordinances of Israel, ceremonial laws, and regulations of ritual purity. Even in the midst of this miscellany of commandments, "Love your neighbor as yourself"
does not appear as major heading under which other duties are grouped. Rather it is introduced in a subordinated position.
When we come to the New Testament, it is as though Jesus rescues this commandment from oblivion. The combination of it with the first great commandment "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind," has become so traditional to us that we miss the astounding nature of this combination. For it is difficult to conceive of a text in the Old Testament with more solemnity and emphasis than Deuteronomy 6, in which the first great commandment appears. What Jesus does is roughly the equivalent of combining the Declaration of Independence with some obscure rider to an appropriations bill.
When we advance to the next stage of redemptive history, something even more startling appears. In the epistles, the first great commandment from Deuteronomy 6:5 is never directly quoted. But both Paul (in Rom. 13:9 and Gal. 5:14) and James (Jas. 2:8) explicitly quote "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Interesting that Paul and James should agree in this!
Paul is particularly perplexing here. In Romans 13:9, and even more emphatically in Galatians 5:14, he declares that the whole law is summed up in "Love your neighbor as yourself." Wait a minute! What happened to loving God? Not that either Paul or James wishes us to ignore the command to love God! Not in the least! Yet aren't both their statements and their silences arresting?
While I am not satisfied that I can yet give a full accounting for these startling phenomena in New Testament ethics, I do think that I can justly say that love of neighbor is thrown into great prominence by Paul. Is Paul telling us that the self-sacrificing love of Christ put into practice by the people of God in service to each other is the every heart and soul of holiness?
If so, Paul forever gives the lie to a predominantly negative piety, a piety that measures itself primarily by what it avoids rather than by what it does. In all this I am struck by the need for a companion volume to Vos's The Pauline Eschatology. In theological jargon, I have in mind the title: The Pauline Parenesis.
To return again one last time to our initial question: "What should a congregation look like that is shepherded by a redemptive-historical ministry?" It should be characterized by self-sacrificing love and service, by a people that loves each other with a love that transcends that exhibited in loving families. Brother elders and ministers, see that you lead your flocks into these green pastures.
I have returned again in my thinking to questions 27 and 28 in the Shorter Catechism, about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. Years ago, I could not imagine what place these questions had in a systematic treatment of the faith, nor what they could be saying to me about the Christian life. Now I know that they speak to me of the grand, victorious march of Christ from heaven to earth to heaven. But I also know that I have been raised with Christ to sit with him in the heavenly places; and I have been summoned to join his triumphal procession. Therefore there is a life of humiliation for me as well. But in Christ, there is also a glorious resurrection to come.
New Brighton, Pennsylvania