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February 21, 2014

The Problem with “Probably”

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

Perhaps I’m beating a dead horse here, but here’s the flipside of what I wrote earlier about Beza’s claim that thousands of baptized children end up perishing eternally (“How would he know?”): Where does Beza get the idea that a baptized child is probably (but only probably) one of God’s children?

A couple comes to you, their pastor, with a serious question.  A few weeks ago, their four-month old daughter died.  You had baptized her when she was a week old, and now they want to know what value that baptism had.  “Pastor, is our daughter in heaven?”

From Beza’s perspective, I suppose your answer is “Probably.”

“Probably?” they say.  “But you’re not sure?”

“Well,” you respond.  “I can’t say for sure.  It’s not as if baptism gives you that sort of guarantee.  Nor does being born in a Christian home.  Nor do all the prayers you’ve prayed or the prayers we prayed at baptism….”

“So there’s a chance our little girl…?”

“Well, yes,” you say.  “Um … many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally.”

“So our little girl might have too?”

“Perhaps.  Yes, that is possible.  But again, my answer to your question — is our daughter in heaven? — is probably.  Probably God loved her.  Probably she was one of God’s children.  Probably she was adopted into his family.  Probably.”

“But … on what basis can you say that, Pastor?  Given that many thousands of children just like our little daughter do perish — that’s what you said — what makes it probably that ours didn’t?”

And I have no idea what you, if you were following Beza, would say.  What would make it probable?  That baptism engrafts a person into God’s church and covenant?  But in the Old Covenant, we certainly see many covenant members who were apostate.  Perhaps one might say that the New Covenant is so much more powerful and efficacious, and yet we still know of many members of Christ’s church who fall away.

Would it be more probable if the couple asking were strong Christians and less probable if they were weak Christians or if they were living in rebellion, unrepentant, but not yet excommunicated at the time of the baptism?  Is the probability grounded on the parents’ faith? On the faith of the pastor? On the godliness of the church?

But Beza doesn’t go this route.  He doesn’t say “Some are more likely God’s children because of this or that and some are less likely.”  He says of all baptized children that they are probably God’s children.  But … on what basis?  In the end, this “probably” seems like wishful thinking, leaving a grieving parent thinking only “… but possibly not.”  And that’s no comfort at all.


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Posted by John Barach @ 2:11 pm | Discuss (3)

Baptism Isn’t a Secret Thing

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

In his debate with Jacob Andreae, as reported by Jill Raitt, Theodore Beza often began to bring up predestination.  When he did, Andreae cut him off, telling him that they were dealing with baptism and would come to predestination some other time.  To Andreae, these were clearly two very different subjects.  But from the fact that he kept bringing it up, it seems clear that to Beza it was impossible to discuss the efficacy of baptism without reference to predestination.

That’s worth thinking about.  At the risk of oversimplifying things, it would appear that for Beza baptism is efficacious (at least, to the fullest degree) only for those who are predestined to eternal glory with Christ.  Others who are baptized are included in the covenant, whatever that means exactly, given that Beza  distinguishes being in the covenant from being in God’s family.  But they cannot really draw any comfort or assurance from their baptism per se, nor can they have that comfort for their children who are baptized.  At most, they can know that those children are “probably” loved and adopted by God, though they might be among the thousands that perish.

But can you imagine an Israelite wondering if his circumcision really meant that he belonged to Israel, God’s holy nation, God’s chosen people, God’s royal priesthood?  Of course he belonged.  That’s just what circumcision was.  He didn’t need to have any doubt about it.  Instead, he could be confident about it, completely assured that he was the object of God’s love — and then he could, and should, act on the basis of it.

After all, circumcision wasn’t one of the secret things.  In Deuteronomy 29, Moses says, “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (29:29).  God gave Israel an obvious ritual, a cutting in the flesh, that marked them out and made them into members of the holy nation because he wanted them to live in terms of their circumcision.  Circumcision wasn’t a secret thing that belonged to Yahweh; it was a thing which was revealed so that Israel could do what she ought to.

And so with baptism.  If we tie the comfort and assurance of baptism to predestination, as Beza did, so that only those who are predestined to eternal glory with Christ can have any comfort, any assurance that they are God’s beloved children, we turn baptism itself — a public, open act — into a “secret thing.”  God knows who is really baptized, who really belongs to his family, but we don’t — and so we cannot live in terms of our baptisms, cannot really look to them for comfort and assurance.  At most, we can live on an entirely speculative “probably.”

But predestination is a secret thing.  Baptism isn’t, and therefore we can — and must — live on the basis of it.  “There should be no doubt that when a child is baptized, it enters into God’s adoption and love, said Andreae.  There should be no ‘probably,’ but rather assurance” (Raitt, 167).


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Posted by John Barach @ 1:52 pm | Discuss (0)

How Would He Know?

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

The longer I think about Beza’s position expressed at the Colloquy of Montbéliard, the more puzzling it becomes.  Beza “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally.”  But … how would he know?

These aren’t people who were baptized as children and then grew up and apostatized.  Andreae would have granted that apostates perish and wouldn’t have been at all shocked that Beza affirmed that they did.  No, Beza must be speaking of children who die in infancy or at least in early youth, so that we cannot say of these children “They were clearly unbelievers.”  They were baptized; they did not apostatize (at least, that we know of!); and yet Beza is sure that thousands of them perish.

I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of reasons why Beza would assert such a thing, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything really plausible.  Did Beza perhaps think that any child who is baptized but who has ungodly parents is bound to perish in spite of his baptism?  Would Beza include in that number any child baptized in a Roman Catholic church, which Beza would likely regard as a false and apostate church.  Is that the reasoning behind Beza’s strong — and, to Andreae, shocking — affirmation?  If so, isn’t this close to Donatism, where the efficacy of the sacrament is thought to depend on the godliness of the one administering it?  I find it hard to believe that Beza would hold such a view.

Or is Beza reasoning backwards from the fact that many thousands who are baptized do end up apostate and perish to the idea that there must be many thousands of children who are baptized but who also perish?  Or …?

I really have no idea what could have prompted his claim.  Anyone out there have a suggestion?

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Posted by John Barach @ 1:29 pm | Discuss (0)
February 20, 2014

Horrenda Vox

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, at the Colloquy of Montbéliard, Beza “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally” — prompting Andreae, in shock, to write a marginal note: “Horrenda vox.”

Horrenda indeed.

It appears that in some circles, though, this view was identified as the Reformed view.  But it is certainly not the view expressed in the Reformed confessional documents.  The Canons of Dort, in the First Head of Doctrine, Article 17, declare something quite the opposite of what Beza affirms:

We must judge concerning will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.

“Ought not to doubt” means that, according to the Canons, it is wrong for such parents to doubt that their children, who die in infancy, are elect and saved.  “Don’t do it!” say the Canons.  “Don’t doubt, but believe that your children are among God’s elect and that they are saved from their sin and from death — and believe it because that’s what God’s Word declares.”

But that’s not the only statement about the matter in the Canons of Dort.  In the Conclusion of the Canons, the Synod talks about how some people have tried to “persuade the public” that the Reformed churches teach various things, including that

Many innocent children of believers are torn from their mothers’ breasts and tyrannically thrown into hell, so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism nor the prayers of the church at their baptism can be of any help to them.

That seems to be what Beza thought, when he “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally.”  But the Canons say of this view that it is something “which the Reformed churches not only do not confess but even detest wholeheartedly” (emphasis added).  The Canons, then, agree here with Andreae against Beza: “Horrenda vox!”

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Posted by John Barach @ 4:44 pm | Discuss (0)

Beza and Baptismal Assurance

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

Sometimes when I read about a debate in the past, I find myself frustrated with both parties.  So it was with Jill Raitt’s summary of the debate between Jacob Andreae and Theodore Beza about baptism at the Colloquy of Montbéliard (“Probably They Are God’s Children: Theodore Beza’s Doctrine of Baptism” in Humanism and Reform [Blackwell, 1991]).  At times, I find myself appreciating a point Beza makes; at other times, Andreae seems to have the upper hand — and at times, the whole debate becomes frustrating.

But perhaps most troubling is what Raitt puts into the title of her essay: Beza’s use of the word “probably.”  Beza “said that infants also probably receive remission of original sin and the fruits of adoption, as long as they do not repudiate these benefits as adults” (159).  Raitt notes that Beza “had always taught, as had Calvin, that the children of believers are probably elect” (159).  But as it turns out, if they did grow up and “repudiate these benefits as adults,” Beza would say that they had never really received the benefits at all.  As Raitt points out,

Were they to repudiate their baptism, they would evidently be reprobate from the beginning.  In that case, they did not receive any benefits from baptism, something that could not be known at the time since, in Reformed theology, the action of the Holy Spirit is God’s secret and cannot be commanded by human actions, even sacramental actions” (159-160).

So, for Beza, “Baptism is … a probable, not a certain, sign that baptized children receive the fruit of adoption.  To say otherwise would be to make God’s choice dependent upon human actions” (164).  In fact, later on Beza went further and “affirmed that many thousands of baptized children are never regenerated, but perish eternally” (167) — prompting Andreae, in shock, to write a marginal note: “Horrenda vox.”

Andreae rightly noted that Beza’s approach undermines any comfort we might receive from baptism and, in fact, in grounding assurance on our experience of faith and on feeling “the motion of the Holy Spirit testifying that one is truly regenerated and adopted as a child of God,” Beza was reducing “assurance to subjective feeling” (166).  “Andreae objected that the sacraments would not be sources of comfort if they were merely sources of probability rather than certainty” (164).

In contrast, “There should be no doubt that when a child is baptized, it enters into God’s adoption and love, said Andreae.  There should be no ‘probably,’ but rather assurance” (167).

One does not have to agree with all the details of Andreae’s theology of baptism to grant his main point: Baptism ought to be a comfort, and that comfort is undermined if we add the word “probably” to it.  If baptism only “probably” means that we belong to God, if we are only “probably” baptized into Christ, if our children are only “probably” included in God’s love but could, if they die in infancy, end up perishing, then baptism can no longer function to give — or even to buttress — our assurance and we will end up looking elsewhere.  As history has shown, that “elsewhere” usually turns out to be our own subjective feelings, our own sense that our faith is strong enough, which in the end leads to what Raitt terms a “psychological morass” (168).


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Posted by John Barach @ 4:32 pm | Discuss (0)

Warrant and Worship

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I’ve often heard that the early Reformers were opposed to organs and other musical instruments in worship, as well as to art (Scriptural paintings, statutes, sculptures) in churches, to say nothing of the rejection of the Roman Catholic altar in favor of a table.  But it appears that that wasn’t universally the case.

In an essay on the Colloquy of Montbéliard (“Probably They Are God’s Children: Theodore Beza’s Doctrine of Baptism” in Humanism and Reform [Blackwell, 1991]), Jill Raitt points out that Theodore Beza, who was Calvin’s successor in Geneva, agreed with the Lutheran Jacob Andreae “that [Roman Catholic] churches should not be destroyed, that altars used by ‘papists’ could be used by Protestants, that art and music in church services was a matter of prudent judgment.”

The difference was “that while Andreae argued for organs, polyphony, painting, and sculpture, Beza preferred simply psalmody and felt that the Reformed churches were under no obligation to install organs.  As for statues and paintings, Beza said that they were most useful in civil life, but the Reformed preferred not to put them in their churches”  (156).  Beza said “that while artistic representations need not be eliminated from churches, they could do more harm than good, given the tendency in human nature to fall into idolatry” (155).


They agreed that Scripture gave no precise commands that must be obeyed on these matters, since even the specific commandment against graven images was obviously interpreted to allow for statues and other representations in ancient Israel.  On the other hand, while the Psalms mentioned all sorts of musical instruments to praise the Lord, there was no specific command to use any particular instrument or any instruments at all.  The final note sounded by both theologians was that in these matters the churches should exercise Christian liberty.  At the same time, excess in either direction should be avoided so that there would be no cause for scandal (156).

It interests me to see that the two men seem to be working with a very similar “regulative principle of worship” here.  It is sometimes said that the Lutherans and the Reformed had (have!) radically different principles.  For Lutherans, it is said, the principle is “If it isn’t forbidden, it’s permitted in worship,” whereas for the Reformed the principle is “If it isn’t commanded, it’s forbidden in worship.”

But clearly, if Beza agreed with Andreae, he wasn’t working with that principle.  Beza agreed with Andreae that “Scripture gave no precise commands that must be obeyed on these matters” and therefore “churches should exercise Christian liberty,” albeit with wisdom so as to avoid excesses and cause scandal.  For instance, Scripture doesn’t prohibit statues in church and therefore they are allowed (“need not be eliminated”).  That is an “If it isn’t forbidden, it is permitted” argument.

But it would also be a mistake to think that Andreae would argue for a bare “whatever isn’t forbidden is permitted.”  Andreae appeals to Scripture for warrant for whatever is allowed in worship.  He points out that Scripture prohibits graven images but notes that that prohibition goes hand in hand with a command to make cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant, so that we must conclude that not every sort of image is excluded by that prohibition.

He points out that Scripture commends the use of musical instruments (e.g,. in Psalm 150) — indeed, he said that the Psalms not only tolerate but actually command the use of instruments (Raitt, 155) — but apparently in the end agreed that Scripture doesn’t give a “specific command to use any particular instrument or any instruments at all” (as if it is sin to sing without instruments).  Thus, Reformed churches aren’t obligated to use instruments, though they were certainly permitted and Andreae would argue for them.

Andreae isn’t arguing for a free-for-all in worship (“You could even bathe your kids in the worship service, because Scripture doesn’t explicitly forbid it!”).  Rather, he aims to stay within Scriptural bounds, doing what is commanded and refraining from what is prohibited, but also noting what is commended, what practices modify the commands and prohibitions, and so on.

In the end, it seems, both recognize that God can commend things that are not absolutely commanded, both grant that what is not forbidden is permitted if there is at least some Scriptural warrant for it, and both urge wisdom and Christian liberty with regard to what takes place in corporate worship.  That’s where the discussion apparently landed, but it seems to me that it ought to have been the springboard for greater unity in these matters between the Reformed and the Lutherans.

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Posted by John Barach @ 4:06 pm | Discuss (0)
October 15, 2013

Unity and Diversity in Preaching

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

The other day I started reading T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach, in which Gordon protests against the sort of thing that passes for preaching, he says, in many evangelical churches.  In his first chapter, he presents seven essential criteria for a sermon, and not just a great sermon but just a good sermon or even a mediocre sermon.  One of those criteria is unity.  Gordon cites Dabney:

Unity requires these two things.  The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout.  But this is not enough.  He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent” (cited 24).

Gordon proposes this test: “If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or a similar) answer?” (24).

I wonder about this alleged “essential.”

First of all, it would be very easy to say what a sermon is “about” if the sermon is topical.  If you’re preaching on the subject of baptism, the congregation ought to be able to say afterwards, “That sermon was about baptism.”  If you’re preaching on marriage, at least eight out of ten people should be able to identify the topic as marriage.

But if you’re preaching on a text of Scripture, that criterion becomes much harder to apply.  Sure, there are easier passages.  If you’re preaching on 1 Peter 3:7, people should recognize that you’re talking about the calling of Christian husbands with regard to their wives (or, as eight out of ten congregation members might say if you asked them, “The sermon was about husbands”).

But what if you were preaching on, say, the Ehud narrative in Judges 3.  What’s that sermon “about”?  Well, it’s about Ehud.  It’s about Ehud assassinating Eglon, the fat king of Moab, and rescuing Israel and then leading to Israel to victory against the Moabites.  It’s about Christ, who strikes the first decisive blow and then leads his church to victory.  It’s about how God turns those who oppress his people into stinking piles of what you leave behind when you’re “covering your feet” and how he thereby makes his people laugh.  You could say “It’s about deliverance” or “It’s about war” but how inadequate a summary that would be.  Ask most congregation members and they might say “It was about Ehud.”  But the inability to state one clear topic (“The sermon was about X”) doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a fault in the sermon.

Second, I wonder about the emphasis on unity as opposed to diversity.  When I was in seminary, I learned (and good training it was, too) to craft for my sermon a theme statement.  It had to contain an active (not passive) verb and it ought to have the application implied, at least in nuce, something like “Paul summons us to adopt the mindset of Christ” for a sermon on Philippians 2:5ff.  The sermon would then usually have two to four points drawn from the text, all related to that theme in some way.  Again, that was good training and I’m thankful that I learned how to craft such a sermon and that I followed that practice for several years at the beginning of my ministry.

But something else happened when I was in seminary.  I was working on 2 Kings 3 for an Old Testament class.  I had done my exegesis and was preparing my sermon, and I bounced my sermon outline off Jim Jordan, asking him if he thought that I had caught the theme of the passage.  His response, if I remember correctly, was something like this: “I think you’ve caught a theme of the passage.”

But then he went on to ask why we would think that a passage could have only one possible theme.  God, after all, is Triune.  He is both one and three, both Unity and Diversity and the source of unity and diversity.  There may, he said, be a number of different ways to sum up the theme of the passage, different things that one could bring to the surface, including some little details in the text that may not fit perfectly with the theme I had chosen but that still were in the text.

It took a long while for his words to sink in, but I’m persuaded of them now.  You might preach a text faithfully and yet have a different theme statement than I would have, and that wouldn’t necessarily mean that one of us had caught the theme of the passage correctly while the other hadn’t.  It might just mean that you and I are bringing out different facets or aspects of the passage.  I might think that something in verse 3 is particularly significant, but you might brush right past it and camp instead for a long time on verse 5.  It might be possible to camp on both verse 3 and verse 5 and risk having people say, “I wasn’t sure if that sermon was more about X or about Y.”  If X and Y are both in the passage, what does it matter if people think that instead of one main point you had two? In fact, when you’re preaching a passage of Scripture, isn’t the primary unity of the sermon found in its source, namely, that what you’re saying — though you might be talking about X and Y and Z — all is drawn from and relates to the one passage you’re preaching?

As Jim Jordan taught me, God is one and three and his triunity is reflected in his word and may be reflected in our preaching.  That’s not necessarily one theme and three points.  It may be one sermon, one text, with three interwoven, intermingling themes.  It may be that if pressed to say what a sermon was about, your congregation could reply, “It was about a lot of stuff — about deliverance and the importance of singing the psalms and about God remembering us and about justice and why we shouldn’t pray for God to look on us in  mercy and not in justice and about how God turns the tables on our enemies and … well, it was about Psalm 9.”  Unity, yes.  And diversity.

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Posted by John Barach @ 2:22 pm | Discuss (3)
May 17, 2013

Tragic Worship?

Category: Literature,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

In a recent essay (“Tragic Worship“), Carl Trueman claims that the modern push for “entertaining” worship isn’t actually entertaining enough because it neglects tragedy, which is one of the highest forms of entertainment. He writes:

Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.

From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.

What strikes me is that, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, everyone listed here as a great tragedian is a pagan or an unbeliever: Homer, Aeschylus, Williams, Hardy, and Conrad.  In fact, the close link between paganism/unbelief and tragedy is so obvious that one of the proposed paper topics in one of my English classes in university years ago was on the possibility of Christian tragedy.  One answer might be that when Christians, including Shakespeare, write tragedies, theirs are different: Shakespeare wasn’t writing Aristotelian tragedy, nor did he share the bleak despair of a Hardy, and even in the deaths of his characters, beauty shines out, the beauty in particular of virtue, the beauty of what’s good.  While paganism is characterized by tragedy and despair, Christians embrace what Peter Leithart calls “deep comedy.”

But what puzzles me in this essay is what this tragic strand in Western literature has to do with the character of the church’s liturgy.  Trueman writes: “Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship.  The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken.”

But what Trueman seems to overlook is that the Lord’s death is precisely not tragic.  The gospel of the cross doesn’t share in the “can’t fight the gods” fatalism of Aeschylus or its modern Hardyian form, nor is Jesus’ death like the deaths of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth.  We don’t feel good about Jesus’ death because in it we see man’s hubris being punished (Aristotle); we rejoice in it because in it man’s sin was dealt with and because, having death with sin, Jesus rose again.  Remembering the Lord’s death in the Supper and remembering the death of Tess Derbyfield are two very different things.

Furthermore, while Trueman is correct in saying that “Death remains a stubborn … and inevitable reality” (I question his use of the word “omnipresent”), I don’t grant that “human life is still truly tragic.”  Even in great western literature, not every death is tragic.  When Aragorn kills an orc, there’s nothing tragic about the death of that orc.  When Boromir rescues Merry and Pippin and then dies of his wounds, his death is sad but not tragic.  When your grandmother falls asleep in Jesus, her death is sad, but not tragic — and beyond her death, there is the certainty of her bodily resurrection in glory, because in Christ death is swallowed up in victory.  (And unlike Trueman, it seems to me that while the emphasis of the funeral ought to be on Christ’s triumph over death, there’s nothing wrong — let alone “most ghastly and incoherent” — with “the celebration of a life now ended.”)

Certainly, there is sorrow in this life.  I agree with Trueman that Christians can and should lament.  Paul tells us to sing psalms, and many of the psalms are full of lamentation.  I’m all in favor of restoring the psalms to the Christian life and to the church’s liturgy, though I would add the caveat “as appropriate.”  Why?  Because it’s not appropriate for lamentations to predominate in the liturgy.

Trueman praises “the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice” of his Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but those adjectives — sombre, haunting, unaccompanied — hardly seem to fit with, say, Psalm 150 or with the descriptions of the Levitical choirs that David established or the heavenly choirs in Revelation.  God apparently delights in accompanied singing (indeed, the word “psalm” itself implies accompaniment!), and apparently he likes it loud and vigorous, at least much of the time.

Trueman claims that “traditional Protestantism” connected “baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection.”  That’s as may be — washing is certainly as valid a connection as death and resurrection — but again, the death associated with baptism, linked so closely with resurrection, was far from tragic.  He points to the reading of the law every Sunday: “Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ.”  Leave aside the question of whether the reading of the Ten Commandments before the confession of sin tends to emphasize the so-called “first use” of the law instead of its primary use as a rule of life and even grant the questionable assertion that the reading of the law “pronounces the death sentence” and apparently carries it out (so that believers are in “their graves” after it!), we still have a progress from death “to resurrection life in Christ” — so why should the rest of the service be sombre as if we were still dying or dead?

Is there room for sorrow in the Sunday service?  Perhaps, in measured doses.  It’s not inappropriate to sing Psalm 51 in connection with the confession of sins.  On occasion, it may be right and fitting to sing a lamentation.  But what ought to be the dominant note of our worship, even when we’ve been deeply convicted of our sins?  It certainly isn’t tragedy.  Nehemiah 8 points the way:

Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.

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Posted by John Barach @ 12:47 pm | Discuss (0)
December 28, 2012

Preaching the Text or Preaching the Event?

Category: Bible - NT - Mark,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

When you’re preaching the narratives in Scripture — and this is particularly true when you’re preaching the Gospels — you have to answer the question: Am I preaching a particular text or am I preaching the event described in that text?

Here’s what I mean: At a certain point in his earthly ministry, just as he leaves Bethany one day on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two men out to get a colt for him to ride on.  That’s an event and it is recorded in all four Gospels.

But it isn’t recorded in exactly the same way; it’s not as if Mark, Luke, and John all say what Matthew says, word for word.  Rather, each evangelist tells the story in his own way.  Matthew and John cite Zechariah 9:9, which speaks of the king coming to Zion, lowly and riding on a donkey, but Mark and Luke don’t.  Matthew tells you that the disciples brought two animals, a donkey and its colt, but the other evangelists mention only the colt, and Mark and Luke don’t even indicate that the colt was a donkey (which, I submit, suggests that they expect you to know that from reading Matthew).  Mark and Luke make the point that the colt must be one on which no one has ever ridden, but Matthew doesn’t say that.  Mark says that the crowds shouted a welcome to the kingdom of David, but the others don’t; Luke says that they shouted “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” but the others don’t.   And there are a host of other differences, too.

So what do you do when you preach this passage?  One approach is to preach the event, perhaps attempting to include (and harmonize) all the details from all four Gospels.  The event actually happened and all the details of it (though accepting that the various details do harmonize and being able to show that they do are two different things).

This is sometimes a valuable thing to do.  For instance, in John’s Gospel Jesus comes to the temple and overturns tables and drives out the sacrificial animals, and he does something similar in the other three Gospels.  But there is a huge difference.  John is describing an event that takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels report something that happened just before the cross.  For a number of reasons, I take these to be two distinct events, one at the beginning and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  No one Gospel reports both, but it wouldn’t be improper for a pastor to preach a sermon on both texts, perhaps showing how Jesus inspects the temple twice, just as a leprous house is inspected twice in Leviticus.

Preaching the event in that way has its place, just as a topical or thematic sermon has its place (e.g., a sermon on infant baptism that draws on a number of texts). It seems to me that this is what Klaas Schilder does in the meditations (not sermons) in his magnificent Christ in His Sufferings trilogy, often with breathtaking results.   But here’s the problem: A sermon like that — preaching the event of the “triumphal entry” — isn’t preaching what any one Gospel actually says.

By trying to focus on the event and drawing in all the details from all the Gospels, such a sermon fails to say what a particular Gospel says.  Matthew has a reason for drawing attention to Zechariah 9:9, but Mark and Luke have a reason not to.  Mark is interested in Jesus as the son of David and his kingdom being the restored Davidic kingdom, but that’s not Luke’s point; Luke is interested in showing how the crowds shouted something similar to (and yet different from) what the angels shouted when they appeared to the shepherd, but that’s not John’s point.  Each one is doing his own thing, drawing attention to one detail or another in order to make his own point, and if you preach the event, you miss that distinctiveness.

That said, there’s also a ditch on the other side, namely, preaching one particular text while ignoring what other texts about the same event say.  And so I read commentaries on Mark 11:1-11 that say, for instance, that the colt could have been a horse.  Not according to Matthew.  Or they say that it wasn’t the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna” and later on “Crucify him” because the ones shouting “Hosanna” were the Galilean pilgrims traveling with Jesus and the ones who shouted “Crucify him” later were the people of Jerusalem.  Except that where Mark tells us the people traveling with Jesus shouted “Hosanna,” John 12 says that there was a crowd shouting the same thing that came from Jerusalem to meet Jesus — and some of them may have been shouting “Crucify” later.  (Mind you, so may the Galilean pilgrims who traveled with Jesus, since, after all, they were still in Jerusalem at that time!).  I read a commentary last night that talked as if these acclamations were offensive to Jesus, but Luke 19 says that Jesus refused to rebuke the crowds and told the Pharisees that if they kept silent even the stones would cry out, which certainly doesn’t sound like disapproval.  In each of these cases, it appears that commentators have so focused on Mark that they have forgotten that Mark is describing an event and that he isn’t the only one to do so.

Now it’s not necessary for your sermon to include everything the other accounts say.  If you’re preaching Mark 11, you don’t have to mention what John 12 says about there being a crowd coming from Jerusalem to meet Jesus or what Matthew 21 says about the colt and its mother being brought to Jesus.  You may simply talk about the crowd with Jesus and the colt.  But you do have to avoid saying something in your sermon on Mark 11 that would contradict those other passages.

Preaching the event is certainly permissible, sometimes particularly valuable.  But it isn’t the same thing as preaching the text with its distinctive focus.  And on the other hand, preaching the text allows you to say what the Spirit inspired a particular author to write, but it isn’t helpful if it focuses on the text to the exclusion of the actual event and the other accounts of it.

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Posted by John Barach @ 2:36 pm | Discuss (0)
November 28, 2012

What Is “Contemporary”?

Category: Music,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

I was thinking recently about what is often called “contemporary” worship music and I began to wonder what exactly is meant by “contemporary”?  The obvious answer might be “Contemporary worship music is worship music that has been written/produced in recent years.”  So a song that was written in the 1800s would not be “contemporary,” while a song written last year — or maybe as long ago as the 1990s? 2000s? — would be.  “Contemporary” is new, “non-contemporary” is old, and the only question is what date marks the boundary line.

But two questions immediately come to my mind:

First, why should we call something “contemporary” based on the date it was written?  What about its usage?  Imagine that there’s a song that’s suddenly on the radio a lot, people are singing along to it, people are requesting it, and so on.  You’d say that that song was popular.  It’s popular at the time it’s being played.  Now that song may have been written many years before it became so popular, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s popular right now.  In fact, not only is it popular; it’s also contemporary — an old song, sure, but one that is part of contemporary culture because people are singing, requesting, and playing it.

Apply that now to the church’s music.  Some of the music that people view as “non-contemporary” or even as “traditional” is still being sung — and sung vigorously — by other people today.  It’s a staple of their church’s music.  It’s a song they sing several times a year.  More than that, it’s a song that many people, including children in the church, love.   Given the opportunity to pick a song, they request that one.   Sure, the song wasn’t written in the last decade and may have been written a couple hundred years ago, but isn’t it still contemporary, not based on its date of composition but based on its being sung by congregations today?

Second, though, does “contemporary” in these discussions refer only to the date of the song’s composition or does it refer really to the style of music, and specifically to whether the song sounds like today’s pop/country/folk-rock/whatever hits on the radio?  Take two songwriters.  One is producing a worship song that sounds a lot like a hit by Coldplay.  The other is, let’s say, working in a conservative Lutheran tradition and produces a song with a square melody that’s recognizably in the tradition of church hymnody.  Both songs are completed on the same day, so in that sense they’re both “contemporary.”  But that doesn’t really matter, does it?  Only the first would really get called “contemporary.”  The latter wouldn’t.  In which case, “contemporary” isn’t really the best word to describe this sort of music, is it?

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Posted by John Barach @ 2:07 pm | Discuss (0)
September 26, 2011

Objectivity and Common Prayer

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

In his provocative (and sometimes wrongheaded) Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day stresses that the liturgy is not only corporate, as opposed to individual, but that it is also to be carried out with objectivity rather than subjectivity.  In the ritual, he says, individuals surrender to something bigger than themselves, so that instead of emphasizing their own individuality or their subjective experience they are taking part in something corporate.  Worship is “common prayer,” not a bunch of individuals who are each praying their own prayers.

Take the Scripture reading, for example:

A good example of objectivity in place or removed for purposes of de-ritualization can be found in the manner of proclaiming scriptures aloud at a liturgy.  According to the traditional method, someone chants the words from the Bible or reads them in a neutral tone of voice; that is, objectively.  The words themselves might tell of something joyful or horrible or ecstatic, but the voice of the reader remains steady and objective.  According to the latest de-ritualizing technique, the reader dispenses with all efforts to remain objective and, instead, colors the story with little, personal touches: dramatic pauses, emphasis on certain words, quotations spoken “in character,” and so on.  The reading takes on the style of one of those novels or children’s stories on tape; everything is all very vivid, to be sure, but, without the objectivity, those words of scripture disappear behind the display of personality.  We do not hear the words of Genesis or Matthew or Paul; we hear (and watch) Bob or Suzy or Joe give us a personal interpretation of scripture.  Bob, Suzy, and Joe do not want to be participants in a collective action; they want us to remain aware that, above all, even above and beyond the words of scripture, they are Bob, Suzy, and Joe (45-46).

I hasten to add that Day is not saying (and I certainly am not) that liturgical reading of Scripture ought to be monotonous, robotic, with nary a trace of emphasis anywhere and never a change of pitch.  What he is saying (and what I want to stress) is that the Scripture reading is not a time for the reader’s own individuality to come to the fore, not a time for him to draw attention to himself.  It’s not appropriate to dramatize the reading, giving the various disciples their own distinctive voices or sounding as if you’re weeping when you’re “being” Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb or raising your volume to shout “Lazarus, come forth!” or … adding … dramatic … pauses and emphases and changes of pitch.   All of that may be fine and appropriate when you’re reading a novel to your kids at home — by all means, give Long John Silver a distinctive voice when you’re reading Treasure Island — but in the liturgy the reading ought to draw attention to the text, not to the reader.

What about some other aspects of our common worship?  Take the phrase “common prayer,” which is the term used to describe the whole liturgy in the Anglican tradition (The Book of Common Prayer).  The liturgy is full of prayer, but these prayers are not the time for the display of one’s own personality or one’s own experience.  The prayer of confession in the Sunday morning service is not the time for weeping and gnashing of teeth as one mourns one’s sin.  The prayer for the needs of all Christendom (often called “the long prayer”) is not the time for the minister to launch into flights of eloquence (“Oh, Pastor, you pray so beautifully!” someone says). The various prayers the congregation prays are not the time for the members of the congregation to express themselves with overly dramatic enunciations, which rank up there with lagging behind the congregation or rushing ahead of them as a liturgical annoyance.  Such things draw attention away from the prayer itself and to the pray-er, and may (at least in the case of the eloquent pastoral prayer, give the congregation the impression that to truly be able to pray well, one must be able to come up with sponteneous tour-de-force prayers the way the pastor seems to every Sunday).

Add one more thing: the pastor’s clothing.  It’s possible that some people think that distinctive clerical garb is a way of drawing attention to the pastor, and it certainly can be.  If the clothing is garish and gaudy or even if the minister wears it out of pride, then it doesn’t serve its purpose.  But its purpose is not to emphasize the personality of the minister.  Quite the opposite: The purpose is to de-emphasize his personality, to cover him up so that no one can see what sort of tie he’s wearing today or wonder why his wife let him out of the house wearing that, and instead to emphasize his office and the role that he’s performing during the service.

The Lord’s Service is corporate, and so it ought to be objective.  The focus ought to be, not on me and my experience or my abilities or my personality — even if I’m the minister. Rather, the focus ought to be the liturgy itself, on the text of Scripture, on the words we’re singing or praying, on what the group is doing together and on what God is doing to us as we draw near to Him.

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Posted by John Barach @ 3:15 pm | Discuss (0)
August 30, 2011

The Glory of Kings

Category: Bible,Theology,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

It’s finally available: Peter J. Leithart & John Barach, eds., The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).

Foreword — R. R. Reno

Introduction — Peter J. Leithart


1.  The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8 — John Barach

2.  Judah’s Life from the Dead: The Gospel of Romans 11 — Tim Gallant

3.  The Knotted Thread of Time: The Missing Daughter in Leviticus 18 — Peter J. Leithart

4.  Holy War Fulfilled and Transformed: A Look at Some Important New Testament Texts — Rich Lusk

5.  The Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6 — Ralph Allan Smith

6.  Father Storm: A Theology of Sons in the Book of Job — Toby J. Sumpter


7.  On Earth as It Is in Heaven: The Pastoral Typology of James B. Jordan — Bill DeJong

8.  Why Don’t We Sing the Songs Jesus Sang? The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of English Psalm Singing — Duane Garner

9.  Psalm 46 — William Jordan


10. A Pedagogical Paradigm for Understanding Reformed Eschatology with Special Emphasis on  Basic Characteristics of Christ’s Person — C. Kee Hwang

11.  Light and Shadow: Confessing the Doctrine of Election in the Sixteenth Century — Jeffrey J. Meyers


12.  James Jordan, Rosenstock-Huessy, and Beyond — Richard Bledsoe

13.  Theology of Beauty in Evdokimov — Bogumil Jarmulak

14.  Empire, Sports, and War — Douglas Wilson

Afterword — John M. Frame

The Writings of James B. Jordan, 1975–2011 — John Barach

The book is currently available for order directly from Wipf & Stock for $40.00 (but there are discounts if you order more than 100).  In a couple of weeks, it should appear on their webpage, and in six to eight weeks should appear on Amazon.

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Posted by John Barach @ 1:51 pm | Discuss (0)

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