The Keys to the Kingdom in Geneva

Reformers 1

Man, am I enjoying Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors. I have decided to describe it as a pastoral theology disguised as history. Here is Manetsch’s summary of the ways Calvin and his successors believed ministers exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).

First, the spiritual authority to “bind and loose” was exercised in a general way when ministers preached the gospel in their sermons, announcing God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked and God’s promise of salvation to those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Second, the power of the keys was employed more particularly when pastors and lay elders conducted annual household visitations to examine the character and doctrine of church members, or when they admonish sinners in private conferences. Finally, ministers and elders employed the power of the keys through the ministry of the Consistory as they confronted people who were guilty of moral failure and excommunicated from the Lord’s Table those who refused to repent of their error. At each stage of discipline, church leaders needed spiritual discernment to apply the appropriate measures of rigor and gentleness to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. Wise pastors, Beza [Calvin’s successor] once observed need “not only to discern the illness, but also the best medicine to prescribe, preaching the Law to the hardened, and the gospel of grace to those despairing. In brief, let us always condemn the sin, but try to save the sinner.” This was Calvin’s view as well. The power of the keys needed to be exercised with wisdom and gentleness in hopes of rescuing the sinner.  Otherwise discipline might degenerate into “spiritual butchery.”

Just a couple of notes from this paragraph.

First, church discipline is often understood only as excommunication. This is a serious mistake and fails to recognize that a majority of discipline in a church occurs from the pulpit in a general fashion or one on one either through visitation or counseling.

Second, the lost art of visitation is one of the reasons why sin among the congregation is not more quickly recognized and dealt with. Visitation does two things: it creates a stronger relationship between the minister/elders and the members so when rebuke is necessary there should already be a bond of love. And it gives the minister a chance to be in the home and ask questions about how the member is doing. If the only time a minister/elder speaks with a member is before or after a regular meeting or when there is crisis then sin will not be adequately dealt with.

Third, discipline in all it forms, preaching, private meetings, and excommunication requires great wisdom on the part of ministers. It is easy to make mistakes, especially in our age where the congregation usually does not want anyone exercising authority in their lives, whether from the pulpit or in their living room, and the pastors have rarely seen spiritual authority exercised well, if at all.

What Traditions to Avoid

TraditionIn chapter X of his Institutes John Calvin is explaining what types of human traditions and laws should be accepted and which ones should be rejected. In section 16 of that chapter he gives a nice summary of his thought.  He asks, “What are those human traditions of all times that should be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.” He then gives a list.  First, he says,

All laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men [that]

  • either prescribe the manner of worshiping God
  • Or to bind consciences by scruples
  • As if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Bible must dictate our worship and what is necessary to be saved. Men cannot make up a laws about worship and make those mandatory or equate them with God’s Word. Nor can man add to God’s Word what is necessary to be saved. Obviously, there is a lot more that could be said about this. He then goes on to give other practical considerations when implementing traditions in the church. What if the tradition is not doing any of the above? Is it automatically okay? Calvin says no. He encourage us to ask the following questions:

  1. Do these rules “obscure by their multitude the clarity of the gospel?”
  2. Are “they in no sense constructive but are useless and trifling occupations rather than true exercises of piety?”
  3. Are “they calculated for sordid and base gain?”
  4. Are “they too difficult to observe?”
  5. Are “they befouled with shameful superstitions?”

Of course reading this list our mind runs straight to Roman Catholicism or perhaps mega church pastors who twist the Word for financial gain. But I want to apply to the reformed world. There has been a liturgical renewal among reformed folks over the last couple of decades. This has led to a closer examination of liturgical traditions, including the church year, robes, kneeling for communion, processionals, recessionals, etc. Many of these traditions have been implemented to various degrees in reformed churches. Those of us who have adopted or are moving toward a more liturgical worship style would be wise to keep Calvin’s list in mind.   The goal of any man made tradition is to make the gospel clear, to increase piety/holiness, to be functional, to avoid all manner of superstition, and to not line the pockets of the shepherds. Too many ministers do not consider things like this carefully enough.

Here is one example where I think liturgical churches are in danger. Many liturgical churches are too complicated. And they get more complicated as time goes on. In other words, they lack functionality.  Why do we need to keep adding things to our worship service? Since what I am talking about are not Biblical commands, but rather traditions we put in place to help people worship, they are contextually dictated. We don’t live in 500 or 1500 or 1800. Some of the traditions in our worship services need to be jettisoned in order to make our worship services more functional for 21st century Americans. This is not a cry to be relevant at the expense of truth. I am not encouraging polls of unbelievers to determine what we do and don’t do. Nor do I think a modern evangelical should walk into our worship and immediately get it. But I am encouraging to us to make sure our traditions are “not too difficult to observe.”

There are other ways we can encourage superstition with our baptismal or communion practices or simply have traditions that are of little value for holiness. I am grateful for the liturgical renewal of the last few years, but that renewal is not problem free. Without restraint, caution, and wisdom some might find themselves closer to 1450 than 1550 in their approach to tradition and worship.

Berkhof on the Knowledge of God’s Being

In dealing with our knowledge of the Being of God we must certainly avoid the position of Cousin, rather rare in the history of philosophy, that God even in the depths of His Being is not at all incomprehensible but essentially intelligible; but we must also steer clear of the agnosticism of Hamilton and Mansel, according to which we can have no knowledge whatsoever of the Being of God. We cannot comprehend God, cannot have an absolute and exhaustive knowledge of Him, but we can undoubtedly have a relative or partial knowledge of the Divine Being. It is perfectly true that this knowledge of God is possible only, because He has placed Himself in certain relations to His moral creatures and has revealed Himself to them, and that even this knowledge is humanly conditioned; but it is nevertheless real and true knowledge, and is at least a partial knowledge of the absolute nature of God. There is a difference between an absolute knowledge, and a relative or partial knowledge of an absolute being. It will not do at all to say that man knows only the relations in which God stands to His creatures. It would not even be possible to have a proper conception of these relations without knowing something of something of both God and man. To say that we can know nothing of the Being of God, but can know only relations, is equivalent to saying that we cannot know Him at all and cannot make Him the object of our religion. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 44

Vatican II on Scripture

One of the common ideas in the current ecumenical climate is that Vatican II altered or at least has the potential to alter the relationship between Protestants and Roman Catholics. There were major changes made at Vatican II, particularly liturgical changes and softening of the RC Church’s stance towards those outside the church. But many central assertions remained. One of the greatest divides, if not the greatest, between Roman Catholics and Protestants is the authority of the Bible and the authority of tradition. Vatican II did not alter the Roman Catholic Church’s view on tradition and Scripture. Here are some quotes from Vatican II

The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.

Sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed. So, both sacred tradition are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.

Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church.

Matthew Barrett comments on these quotes saying,

While the document goes on to say, “this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it,” Vatican II cannot meant this in the way that the Reformers did, for it then says this teaching office “draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” So while this teaching office may serve the Word of God, it originates from the one holy deposit along with Scripture and must be equally revered as God’s Word.

There is debate in Roman Catholic circles about what all of this means. But that is largely irrelevant. The institution of Roman Catholicism is built on tradition plus Scripture. In the end, unity is impossible if one group accepts two divinely received sources of authority and the other group accepts only one and rejects the other.

Circumcision is a Spiritual Sacrament

Pierre Marcel on the nature of circumcision in the Old Testament. Italics are his.

Circumcision thus represents the obligation resting upon him who received this sign, in authentication  of this promise, to circumcise his heart and living according to the covenant…

Circumcision, therefore,  truly has a spiritual meaning in perfect harmony with the covenant of grace, itself spiritual, of which it is the sign and seal. The device whereby an attempt is made to divide the Abrahamic covenant into two or three covenants distinct from each other [by Baptists], in order that, to suit the convenience of a certain people, a “carnal” element may be inserted into it, has no justification…

All that we have today in our sacraments the Jews had formerly in theirs, namely, Jesus Christ and His spiritual riches. The efficacy of the sacraments of the Old Testament is identical with that of the sacraments of the New, because they are equally signs, seals, and confirmations of the good will of God for the salvation of men. There is, it is true, a difference between the sacraments as regards outward appearance, but they are identical as regards their internal and spiritual significance. The signs have changed, while faith does not change. 

Perfect and Complete in All Respects

 

Holy BibleI believe that in the coming years the fundamental battle in the church will be over the authority, sufficiency, necessity, and clarity of the Bible. Is the Bible the final, absolute authority or can we look to tradition, ancient cultures, or other types of revelation as equal to or even superior to God’s Word ? Is the Bible sufficient for man’s salvation and to understand how to live a godly life or do we need tradition, science, psychology, or personal revelation from God? Is the Bible necessary to be saved and live a holy life or can men “who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – achieve eternal salvation?” Finally, is the Bible clear enough on how man is saved and how he may live a godly life or do Christians need another source to clean up the Bible for them?

Because I see this as a key front in the war on the Christian faith I have been slowly accumulating books and articles on the Scriptures from those who agree with my Protestant, Reformed convictions and from those who do not.  I have also been reading the various confessions and catechisms to see what they say about this. In my reading I found this wonderful explanation of the sufficiency of Scripture in Belgic Confession Article 7. All the bold is mine.

We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it. For since the entire manner of service which God requires of us is described in it at great length, no one– even an apostle or an angel from heaven, as Paul says- ought to teach other than what the Holy Scriptures have already taught us. For since it is forbidden to add to or subtract from the Word of God, this plainly demonstrates that the teaching is perfect and complete in all respects. Therefore we must not consider human writings– no matter how holy their authors may have been– equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else. For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule, as we are taught to do by the apostles when they say, “Test the spirits to see if they are of God,” and also, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house.”

Freedom of Religion & the Clarity of Scripture

Over against Rome, the churches of the Reformation indeed have no more powerful weapon than Scripture. It delivers the deadliest of blows to ecclesiastical tradition and hierarchy. The teaching of the perspicuity [clarity] of Scripture is one of the strongest bulwarks of the Reformation. It also most certainly brings with it its own serious perils. Protestantism has been hopelessly divided by it, and individualism has developed at the expense of the people’s sense of community. The freedom to read and examine Scripture has been and is grossly abused by all sorts of groups and schools of thought. On the balance, however, the disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages. For the denial of the clarity of Scripture carries with it the subjection of the layperson to the priest, of a person’s conscience to the church. The freedom of religion and the human conscience, of the church and theology, stands and falls with the perspicuity of Scripture. It alone is able to maintain the freedom of the Christian; it is the origin and guarantee of religious liberty as well as of our political freedom. Even a freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 479. Also quoted in K. DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word