White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Muslim Persecution of Christians

As we have seen the Arab Spring turn into a scorching summer throughout many countries in the middle east, we are also beginning to hear more and more about the difficulties faced by minority Christian populations in those regions. Even where somewhat democratic regimes have offered promising hopes for religious freedom (as in Indonesia), the pace of persecution is stepping up around the world. A recent article by the Gatestone Institute provides an up-to-date summary:

Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012

Unlike those nations, such as Saudi Arabia, that have eliminated Christianity altogether, Muslim countries with significant Christian minorities saw much persecution during the month of May: in Egypt, Christians were openly discriminated against in law courts, even as some accused the nation’s new president of declaring that he will “achieve the Islamic conquest of Egypt for the second time, and make all Christians convert to Islam;” in Indonesia, Muslims threw bags of urine on Christians during worship; in Kashmir and Zanzibar, churches were set on fire; and in Mali, Christianity “faces being eradicated.”

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa—in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, the Ivory Coast—wherever Islam and Christianity meet, Christians are being killed, slaughtered, beheaded and even crucified.

To read the rest of this article click here: Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012.

To read more about Christianity and Islam, check out the July / August 2012 issue of Modern Reformation “The Cross and the Crescent

WHI-1108 | Understanding Islam (Part 1)

Islam is in the news a lot these days, but what do we really know about this world religion? Who was Mohammed, and why did he set out to write the Koran? How did Islam evolve into its present state? Can it coexist with other religions and political regimes? On this program, Michael Horton discusses these questions and more with Islamic specialist Adam Francisco.

RELATED ARTICLES

Christ & Islam,
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Dave Hlebo

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Click here to access the audio file directly

Review of Simonetta Car’s Weight of a Flame

Olympia Morata (1526-1555) was without doubt a woman full of potential, even from her earliest years. As a brilliant young scholar with a passion for knowledge and an immense capacity to learn, she held the opportunity for an illustrious career in the palms of her hands. However, Olympia’s legacy lay not in her contributions to any field of academic study, nor in the power and fame she easily could have attained through her work. Rather, she lived, worked, and endured persecution for a goal that she considered to be far greater than any recognition of men—her faith in her savior. Simonetta Carr’s novel Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata recounts the story of this godly woman and her growth from a young girl brimming with an eagerness for knowledge to a mature adult striving for the sake of the gospel. As part of the Chosen Daughters series, this novel is intended for an audience primarily comprised of young girls, but Olympia’s riveting story and inspiring example is beneficial for any Christian to read.

The novel begins with Olympia’s early teenage years just before she leaves her home to work as a tutor in the court of the Duke of Ferrara. While employed there, Olympia is exposed to a wealth of learning and opportunities, and at this time her highest goal is to attain academic excellence and recognition. The plight of the Protestant faith, both in her native Italy and throughout Europe, is well known to Olympia, as her family and members of the court constantly fear for their safety due to their beliefs. However, the young teenager doesn’t place great importance on the issue at first. She questions her faith and is full of doubts, but she doesn’t seek advice or help with her struggles because her academic pursuits are her first priority.

At this point, Carr masterfully communicates the transition in Olympia’s character that grants this novel its power. After serving the court for many years and growing in academic knowledge, Olympia suffers two losses: the death of her father and the end of her position in the court. The first tragedy brings her faith to the forefront of her mind, as her devout father was always an inspiration to Olympia. However, it is the second event that causes a turning point in the young woman’s life. Without a position in the powerful court and a budding reputation as a brilliant scholar, Olympia is stripped of the earthly power that made her feel secure in the world. She is forced to realize that truly, the accomplishments of men are merely temporal and can be snatched away in a second. It is here that Olympia finally relinquishes her pride, her abilities, and her service, taking them away from focusing on worldly pursuits and instead dedicating her life to the glory of God.

After this turning point, Olympia’s example is even more inspiring. She continues to write and work diligently over academic activities, but now her first priority is using her talents for the benefit of the faith she confesses. The rich history of this time period is explored as Olympia and her husband, Andreas Grunthler, endure persecution, war, and sickness in their struggle to survive the harsh anti-Protestant climate that engulfed most of Europe. Sadly, Olympia died from the lingering results of a fever acquired during wartime; she was not quite twenty-nine at the time of her death.

At first, it may sadden the reader to realize that, due to Olympia’s brief life, she was never able to impact the world around her to a greater extent through her prodigious learning and academic abilities. However, thanks to Carr’s beautiful portrayal of Olympia’s spiritual dedication and maturity, the reader is reminded that Olympia’s true legacy is far greater than any written work or course of study. Her brief but shining example of godliness and devotion to her faith is more inspiring than all the temporal achievements and accolades of a long and prolific life. Carr’s novel is intended to share Olympia’s story with young girls, but the lessons contained in this tale are ones that would benefit a Christian of any age. Olympia Morata is a powerful example of the importance of dedicating one’s ambitions, talents, and life to God, and striving not for glory here on earth, but desiring ultimately “to live in that heavenly home in which it is more pleasant to dwell for one short day than it is to spend a thousand years in the courts of princes” (141).


Madeline Taylor is a member of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA.

The Parent as Youth Pastor

“Doing youth ministry without parents is like driving a car without the engine.”
- Mark Devries[1]

It’s no secret anymore, youth ministry is in a state of crisis. Polls of recent years report over and over the dire percentages of youth who leave the church after high school. Whatever the exact percentage actually is, what seems clear enough is that more young people are choosing to leave the church than choosing to stay. [2] The million dollar question is, of course, “Why is this happening?” And while there are certainly multiple factors involved in this mass exodus, I believe that a primary contributing factor is the loss of emphasis on the central role of the parent in the spiritual nurture of their children. Much of the youth ministry done in recent decades seems to have forgotten that parents are commanded to be, and by God’s design will necessarily be, the primary youth pastors for their children—for better or for worse. And when the central role of the parents is neglected, a major deviation from God’s design for youth ministry has taken place that can only be harmful for youth in the long term.

In order to start righting the ship, churches must first of all re-embrace the responsibility given to parents by God to be the front line “youth pastor” for their children. In the Old Testament, the priests had the general responsibility to teach all of the people the Word of God, but parents were given a special responsibility to teach their children. Moses commanded the people of Israel “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). The same principal is in the New Testament. Pastors have the general responsibility to preach and teach God’s word to God’s people (including the youth), but the only command regarding the training and discipling of children is given directly to parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). This does not necessarily mean that there is no place for a church to have a “youth ministry” apart from parents, but it does mean that youth ministry must be built on this central foundation. Proverbs 22:6 states “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This proverb is not a universal promise that every child who is trained by his parents will grow up to be a Christian, but it is a general principal that God has given for us to live by. Generally speaking, God uses the means of Godly parents who prayerfully and diligently seek to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” to convert them. God has designed the home, not the youth group, to be the spiritual nursery where the Christian faith is taught and modeled to children from their earliest years.

Secondarily, parents and churches must embrace a more sober estimation of what youth ministry actually accomplishes. Part of what has created the current crisis in youth ministry is that churches have assumed that the youth pastor and youth programs are more important than they really are. Again, this is not to say that there is no place for a youth pastor, youth group, or youth programs. When these things are Biblically grounded they can be a real blessing to youth. The reality is, however, that in most cases the overall influence of a youth pastor and youth group on a child will be insignificant when compared to that of the parents. “It’s time for a reality check,” says Mark Devries, “Youth ministries, in and of themselves, have limited power to produce lasting change in young people’s lives.” [3] As case in point, let me use myself as an example. As a youth pastor, one of my priorities is to spend as much time as I can with the youth. On a good week, a week that I am able to see a specific youth in several different venues, I may be able to spend 6-8 hours with him or her, although most of that time is in a group setting. On other weeks, the only personal interaction I may have with them is at Church on Sunday morning and a text or facebook message during the week. I pray that God will bless the time that I have with them, but I know that it is not enough.

Parents, by contrast, spend every day with their children. For 18 years they live life with them: waking, eating, sleeping, praying, playing, laughing, crying, arguing, and the list goes on. As a result, parents know their children like no other adult will ever know them, and they will have more influence on them for spiritual good or ill than any other adult ever can. Thomas Manton, writing in the 17th century, called on the “Heads of Families” to recognize this special influence:

How much the serious endeavors of godly parents and masters might contribute to an early seasoning the tender years of such as are under their inspection, is abundantly evident, not only from their special influence upon them, in respect of their authority over them, interest in them, continual presence with them, and frequent opportunities of being helpful to them; but also from the sad effects which, by woeful experience, we find to be the fruit of the omission of this duty.” [4]

If a child has a negligent youth pastor, Godly parents will easily counter his influence. But if a child has negligent parents, very rarely will a youth pastor be able to overturn the “sad effects” of which Manton speaks. Jonathan Edwards put it boldly: “…Family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all other means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful.” [5]

Thus, if we are going to stem the tide of youth leaving the church, I believe a key component is a fresh awareness of the centrality of the parents for youth ministry. Parents are the church’s primary youth pastors, and a central place in youth ministry today must be given to helping parents embrace that privilege and responsibility, and equipping them to do it. Youth ministry has a valid and important supporting role to the parents, but it must never become a substitute. Our youth are too important to allow that to happen.


Scott Korljan is an assistant pastor at North City Presbyterian Church in Poway, CA.


1. Mark Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1994), 85.[Back]

2. www.christianitytoday.com/le/2009/summer/istheeraofagesegmentationover.html?start=1 This is not an isolated report, the Southern Baptist convention in a 2002 Report on Family Life reported that 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of eighteen. [Back]

3. Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 78. [Back]

4. Document online at www.reformed.org/documents/index.html. [Back]

5. As quoted in Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 85. [Back]

What are you reading?

Thad Bergmeier is a pastor in Ohio who recently blogged about his experience reading through Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity with a group of other pastors in his area. He says,

I would recommend this book with one caveat. Make sure you know what you are in for when you pick up this book. He withholds no punches. He is sarcastic at times. It is a sad, but accurate, picture of the current church in America. And it is not the easiest book to read. But if you want to come face to face with a message that speaks truth and isn’t afraid to use names, this will be a good book for you.

Thad’s recommendation got us thinking: what are you reading right now and how is it making a difference for you? Especially in light of our recent White Horse Inn episode on Scatterbrains, we want to encourage you to do some heavy intellectual lifting, maybe even turn off the computer (gasp!), and equip yourself with tools for ministry (like Thad) or information that expands not just your head, but also your heart.

Go ahead: close the browser, then pick up a book. After you read it, come back and tell us what’s changing in your life.

WHI-1107 | The Narcissism Epidemic

Many churches in our day offer entertaining music, fluffy sermons, and demand nothing. In short, they give people what they want. But what if “what they want” is informed by a culture of narcissism? On this edition of White Horse Inn, Michael Horton talks with psychology writer Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (originally aired Aug 2, 2009).

RELATED ARTICLES

MUSIC SELECTION

E-Pop, I’ll Fly Away

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Narcissism Epidemic
Twenge & Campbell
Generation Me
Jean Twenge

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

“It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the church…”

The need is still great for missions to far-flung regions where the gospel is virtually unknown. One of the things I’ve become more convinced of over the past 20 years, however, is that the gospel is as foreign to us in the West (including North America) as anywhere. You can get a lot of support from Christians on that point when you’re talking about the culture, but I’m talking about churches.

It’s increasingly possible to grow up in the church today without ever having really heard the gospel. In fact, many churches – and the parachurch Christian subculture – actually move people further away from Christ, even in the name of mission and “reaching the kids.” In response to a recent White Horse Inn program on “Reforming Youth Ministry,” a young adult named Kristy wrote in:

It is a miraculous wonder that I didn’t leave the church completely. I had never heard of apologetics, reformed theology, justification, etc… until I was in my late 20′s. I grew up in a very small country church. I learned much about love & serving others but nothing about sound theology or doctrine. I don’t completely fault my home church because I doubt the majority of the adults in the church had ever heard any of those topics. Most of the elders probably didn’t even have a high school degree. They taught us what they knew, the love of God. However, when I went off to college, I didn’t have the solid foundation that I should have. I was…still am…very drawn to New Age/The Occult. It was only for the Grace of God that I didn’t end up in some weird cult. I feel like I am now having to play catch up. Comments like “they won’t understand,” “they’ll shut off,” “they won’t remember this stuff” make me SO angry. It really irritates me to think how they underestimate these kids. If you don’t expect much out of kids, you won’t get much. Expect the most from kids & most of them will strive to prove themselves to you & the ones who don’t will catch a couple of nuggets that may return later in life. If you expect someone to fail, they will be less likely to give it their all. If you are there as a support & encourager, they will thrive & even surprise you down the line.

We can’t repeat it often enough: we’re not a church. Still, God is using White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation to introduce people to solid biblical teaching, to give them the criteria and passion for finding a good church, and to reform churches that have found themselves drifting into “mission creep.”Through your generous support, conversations in homes, schools, lunchrooms, and churches are changing and the scandalous gospel is being rediscovered – and discovered for the first time – by people who had thought previously that they knew it all along.

Would you please consider a special gift in support of our work, here and abroad, as we conclude our fiscal year end? Donate any amount by June 30 (only 10 days left). All gifts are important! Donate $100 and receive an MP3 cd of your choice loaded with White Horse Inn episodes and articles from Modern Reformation magazine.

WHI-1106 | Scatterbrains

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicolas Carr writes, “When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. The net seizes our attention, only to scatter it. We become mindless consumers of data.” On this edition of the program, the hosts discuss this disturbing trend as it relates to our understanding of the faith. How can we become true disciples if we are all becoming superficial learners? How are we to be people of the Book in the age of Google?

RELATED ARTICLES

Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Nicholas Carr (offsite)

MUSIC SELECTION

Doug Powell

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Give Me Grace: review and response

Brittany Norris asks a few questions of Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace in her review, “Give Me Grace.” In the spirit of conversational theology, we asked Fitzpatrick and Thompson to write a response, which you can find below.

Give Me Grace

We are not nor can we be the saviors of our children. He is the Savior. When we forget this, our parenting will be pockmarked by fear, severity, and exhaustion. (Give them Grace, p.55)

Does this parenting “style” sound familiar to anyone else but me? Like many mothers, I am prone to think too much of my abilities and too little of God’s. Even when I have a dreadful day with the children, I still wake up the next morning thinking that if I just try harder, I can get my children to act more sanctified. Enter Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace, a helpful antidote against the poisonous legalistic bent in parenting.

As this mother-and-daughter-team see it, Christian parents too often make the goal of their parenting Judeo-Christian moral training, which any Mormon or Jewish parent could accomplish as well as we can. What makes parenting truly Christian, the authors suggest, is steeping our training in the message of our children’s inability to keep the law, and their need for a relationship with the Obedient Son who kept the law in their place. Though we know that our own salvation is accomplished this way, somehow we get gospel-amnesia when it comes to raising our kids. After all, “[i]n the same way that iron filings follow a magnet, our hearts chase after rules—not because we ever really obey them but because we think they make life manageable” (p. 81). According to Fitzpatrick and Thompson, our children are often “taught that God wants them to be good, that poor Jesus is sad when they disobey, and that asking Jesus into their heart is the breadth and depth of the gospel message”  (p.18). In this way, Jesus simply becomes the extra boost the kids need to be good enough. But when we teach them obedience while neglecting their need for the righteousness of Christ to cover their (constant!) disobedience, we give them a false confidence in their flesh—a sure path to Hell. Nevertheless, the authors encourage us to teach our children the Law—over and over—not because they can obey, but to help them see that they can’t.

One of the most powerful sections of Give Them Grace is their discussion of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as Fitzpatrick calls it, the Story of the Welcoming Father). As the authors demonstrate from the parable, both sons sin, and the Father welcomes both into the abundance of his grace. Yet many of us tend to focus our disciplinary efforts on the “prodigal” child or behavior and overlook the pharisaical, “older brother” ones (read: outward compliance and self-righteousness). The older brother, with his indignant reaction to the younger brother’s restoration, is just as guilty of wandering away from his Father’s love as was the Prodigal. I need this reminder when I encounter both the Prodigal and the Pharisee in my own home (and in myself). It is often tempting to squelch the licentious eruptions from my children because they are showily disobedient. Meanwhile, I may notice the whiney legalism that surfaces (“She took an extra turn, Mom!”), but I mistakenly think that the self-righteous lack of mercy is not equally worth correcting. Fitzpatrick and Thompson rightly point out that the Heavenly Father welcomes both Prodigals and Pharisees with open arms, and suggest that even little pharisees should be lovingly shown their sin as we point them to the true, merciful Law-Keeper.

Also helpful is that co-author Jessica Thompson is herself in the process of raising children according to the gospel principles outlined in the book. With four young children of my own, I need both to steep myself in the theological underpinnings of Christian parenting and to see real-world examples of these same principles in action. In the immediacy of a teachable moment—with spaghetti boiling over on the stove and the baby crying—I may not remember the finer points of Jesus’ passive and active righteousness on my shouting three-year-old’s behalf. I may, however just manage to remember a similar moment that Thompson shared from her own life and be able to apply the Gospel Story to my child’s sinful behavior in like manner. Or not. And when I fail, then I can lead my daughter to the foot of the cross where we can both seek forgiveness: her, for her rebellious tantrum, and me, for my angry knee-jerk reaction.

Nevertheless, my main criticism of the book is one that other Reformed reviewers have noted: Fitzpatrick and Thompson have a decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children. Because none of us know whether our children have yet experienced God’s redeeming grace, the authors encourage us to treat our children as unbelievers unless the child has formally announced his own salvation. An otherwise helpful appendix in the back of the book which suggests gospel-based responses to children needing discipline for common offenses (lying, blame shifting, disobeying, etc.) offers different presentations for Christian and non-Christian children. With Fitzpatrick coming from a Reformed Baptist background, this viewpoint is not surprising. And, as they do throughout the book, the authors are right to point out the dangers of breeding hypocrisy in our children, whether through coerced apologies or presumed regeneration. The real pitfall of hypocrisy, however, is not merely in pretending to be something we’re not. Hypocrisy is deadliest when the hypocrite actually thinks the outward show is good enough. We unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God, since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens. It would surely be a recalcitrant child who refused to pray the Prayer for Salvation by the age of four or five in such an environment. So making a strong distinction—as the appendix charts do—between how you present the gospel to your children based on some singular point of decision may actually drive them to believe that their faith must reach a certain minimum of sincerity in order to earn righteous standing. To a lesser extent, this may be an inadvertent danger in the authors’ insistence on waiting until the child initiates an apology before forgiveness is articulated. Am I sorry enough? Yes, I think I am. The unspoken message is that the purity of Johnny’s repentance—or faith, when considering his own regenerate state—is the basis for his forgiveness. And here we are, coming in the back door of works-righteousness. For, of course, none of us—children included—are capable of pure repentance or faith. Our most lofty spiritual impulses are always co-mingled with sin. The only standard for “sorry enough,” or “believing enough,” is perfection, and none of us can manage that, which is why we need Christ’s perfection credited to us. Certainly, paedobaptists have their own pitfalls; presumption comes to mind. But it seems better to treat your children like members of the visible Church that they are, while daily lavishing them with their need for the same Gospel that unbelievers need. As the parable has it, wheat and tares really do grow together, and can only be distinguished in the Final Harvest.

Brittany Norris (MA, University of Colorado) lives in San Diego, where she’s the wife of a ruling elder and the homeschooling mother of four energetic and effervescent children.

 

Response to “Give Me Grace” and Brittany Norris
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson

First of all, we’d like to thank Modern Reformation for this opportunity to respond to the generally insightful and gracious critique by Brittany Norris of our book, Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.

We appreciate the fact that Norris would take the time to read and respond to our book even though she knew going into it that we had significant differences on covenantal theology.  Generally speaking, when people know upfront that there will be as significance a difference of opinion on something as integral to their belief systems as covenant theology is for many, they dismiss the book out-of-hand. We’re very thankful that Norris took the time to read the book and demonstrate godly maturity in being able to cull out segments that she found helpful.  In other words, she refrained from throwing out the baby with the bathwater and with a book on childrearing, that’s a good idea.

We obviously agree that many Christian parents fall into the trap of moralism or as Christian Smith identified, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This, coupled with a pervasive insufficiency in communicating the gospel, was our primary goal in writing the book. We are gratified that Norris rightly identified and deduced our objectives.

Now to the areas of disagreement (remembering that this is disagreement between sisters for whom Christ died): We agree that we have a “decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children.” Rather than using our response now to try to convince any of our readers of the correctness of our position (as if that would be possible), we will simply clarify the areas where we think Norris has misunderstood or misrepresented what we’ve written in Give them Grace.

To begin with, Norris references our Appendix 2, “Common Problems and the Gospel.” In her remarks she misconstrues our position on regenerate and unregenerate children. She states that we

unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens.

This statement grieves us. If our writing was so ambiguous at this point that a parent could think that we would propagate this kind of works righteousness, we are indeed sorry. We do not think this. In fact, the heartbeat of our message is that mere outward conformity to a religious practice such as saying the “sinner’s prayer” would never merit the pleasure of God. It is simply impossible for us to overemphasize how strongly we oppose that statement. Throughout the book we say over and over again, that both parents and children must be hidden in the righteous of Christ alone and never put any trust in any outward conformity at all. Children and parents (both covenantal and non-covenantal) must trust in Christ who makes believing children and their parents righteous by faith alone.

Perhaps Norris is foisting her own presupposition of what non-covenantal people believe (and they may!) onto what we have said. If we were unclear on this point, we would simply ask for a charitable reading of what we’ve said rather than an assumption of what “reformed Baptists” believe. On numerous occasions, we say that the promises are for those who believe—no matter how they may conform to outward religious practices (or not). We assume that the promises being for those who have been given faith by Christ’s grace alone is an area of disagreement among covenantal and non-covenantal people but we never propose to judge the state of any person’s salvation no matter what they have prayed or how “good” they seem to be.

In our own home, we present the Bible’s promises for both believing and unbelieving children to our children, continually assuring our kids that if they have believed (no matter what they’ve said to us) all of God’s good gifts are already theirs. We are very well aware of the fact that they may outwardly conform to our religious practices out of a desire to please us and not out of real faith. When they exhibit what we identified as “religious obedience”(Luther’s category) in the book, we continually tell them that their obedience is not meritorious and that the Lord sees the heart but delights in their simple faith in his promise to declare that they are righteous no matter what. The issue for us is not declaration of faith but rather real faith – something only the Lord can judge.

In sum, we agree that wheat and tares do grow together and that no one aside from our Sovereign God knows those who are really his. We are continually striving to teach and believe that “salvation is of the Lord” alone and to treat each of  our dear children as fellow-sinners as in need of the grace and faith and righteousness as we are.

It is our sincere desire that this response may have cleared up any misconceptions about our book. In any case, we are thankful for this opportunity and pray that the Lord will continue to illumine all of our hearts to the glories of his grace. Again, we’re thankful that Norris took the time to interact with our book and we pray that this brief response will be helpful.

Who’s in Charge Here? The Illusions of Church Infallibility

In my experience with those who wrestle with conversion to Roman Catholicism—at least those who have professed faith in the gospel, the driving theological issue is authority. How can I be certain that what I believe is true? The gospel of free grace through the justification of sinners in Christ alone moves to the back seat. Instead of the horse, it becomes the cart. Adjustments are made in their understanding of the gospel after accepting Rome’s arguments against sola scriptura. I address these remarks to friends struggling with that issue.

Reformation Christians can agree with Augustine when he said that he would never have known the truth of God’s Word apart from the catholic church. As the minister of salvation, the church is the context and means through which we come to faith and are kept in the faith to the end. When Philip found an Ethiopian treasury secretary returning from Jerusalem reading Isaiah 53, he inquired, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” the official replied, “unless someone guides me?” (Ac 8:30-31). Explaining the passage in the light of its fulfillment in Christ, Philip baptized the man who then “went on his way rejoicing” (v 39).

Philip did not have to be infallible; he only had to communicate with sufficient truth and clarity the infallible Word.

For many, this kind of certainty, based on a text, is not adequate. We have to know—really know—that what we believe is an infallible interpretation of an ultimate authority. The churches of the Reformation confess that even though some passages are more difficult to understand, the basic narratives, doctrines and commands of Scripture—especially the message of Christ as that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation—is so clearly evident that even the unlearned can grasp it.

For the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister.

The following theses summarize some of the issues that people should wrestle with before embracing a Roman Catholic perspective on authority.

  1. The Reformers did not separate sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) from solo Christo (Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). As Herman Bavinck said, “Faith in Scripture rises or falls with faith in Christ.” Revealed from heaven, the gospel message itself (Christ as the central content of Scripture) is as much the basis for the Bible’s authority as the fact that it comes from the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit. Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, certified his divine authority. Furthermore, he credited the Old Testament writings as “scripture,” equating the words of the prophets with the very word of God himself and commissioned his apostles to speak authoritatively in his name. Their words are his words; those who receive them also receive the Son and the Father. So Scripture is the authoritative Word of God because it comes from the unerring Father, concerning the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Neither the authority of the Bible nor that of the church can stand apart from the truth of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel.
  2. Every covenant is contained in a canon (like a constitution). The biblical canon is the norm for the history of God’s saving purposes in Christ under the old and new covenants. The Old Testament canon closed with the end of the prophetic era, so that Jesus could mark a sharp division between Scripture and the traditions of the rabbis (Mk 7:8). The New Testament canon was closed at the end of the apostolic era, so that even during that era the Apostle Paul could warn the Corinthians against the “super-apostles” by urging, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Co 4:6). While the apostles were living, the churches were to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Co 11:2), “…either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Th 2:15). There were indeed written and unwritten traditions in the apostolic church, but only those that eventually found their way by the Spirit’s guidance into the New Testament are now for us the apostolic canon. The apostles (extraordinary ministers) laid the foundation and after them workers (ordinary ministers) build on that foundation (1 Co 3:10). The apostles could appeal to their own eye-witness, direct, and immediate vocation given to them by Christ, while they instructed ordinary pastors (like Timothy) to deliver to others what they had received from the apostles. As Calvin noted, Rome and the Anabaptists were ironically similar in that they affirmed a continuing apostolic office. In this way, both in effect made God’s Word subordinate to the supposedly inspired prophets and teachers of today.
  3. Just as the extraordinary office of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinct from that of ordinary ministers, the constitution (Scripture) is qualitatively distinct from the Spirit-illumined but non-inspired courts (tradition) that interpret it. Thus, Scripture is magisterial in its authority, while the church’s tradition of interpretation is ministerial.
  4. To accept these theses is to embrace sola scriptura, as the Reformation understood it.
  5. This is precisely the view that we find in the church fathers. First, it is clear enough from their descriptions (e.g., the account in Eusebius) that the fathers did not create the canon but received and acknowledged it. (Even Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16, even though Paul clearly says in Galatians that he did not receive his gospel from or seek first the approval of any of the apostles, since he received it directly from Christ.) The criteria they followed indicates this: To be recognized as “Scripture,” a purported book had to be well-attested as coming from the apostolic circle. Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all 27 NT books in 367. Before this even, many of these books were being quoted as normative scripture by Clement of Rome, Origin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. Of his list, Athanasius said that “holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us” (NPNF2, 4:23). Also in the 4th century Basil of Caesarea instructed, “Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not…It is a manifest defection from the faith, a proof of arrogance, either to reject anything of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not” (“On the Holy Spirit,” NPNF2, 8:41). Second, although the fathers also acknowledge tradition as a ministerially authoritative interpreter, they consistently yield ultimate obedience to Scripture. For example, Augustine explains that the Nicene Creed is binding because it summarizes the clear teaching of Scripture (On the Nicene Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens, 1).
  6. Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge that the early Christian community in Rome was not unified under a single head. (Paul, for example, reminded Timothy of the gift he was given when the presbytery laid its hands on him in his ordination: 1 Tim 4:14). In fact, in the Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue the Vatican acknowledged that “the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis for papal primacy” and that they contain “no explicit record of a transmission of Peter’s leadership” (“Authority in the Church” II, ARCIC, para 2, 6). So one has to accept papal authority exclusively on the basis of subsequent (post-apostolic) claims of the Roman bishop, without scriptural warrant. There is no historical succession from Peter to the bishops of Rome. First, as Jerome observed in the 4th-century, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders,” and Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the presbyters was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord” (cited in the Second Helvetic Confession, Ch 18). Interestingly, even the current pope acknowledges that presbyter and episcipos were used interchangeably in the New Testament and in the earliest churches (Called to Communion, 122-123).
  7. Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word ['universal']….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).
  8. Nevertheless, building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.” Declaring themselves Christ’s replacement on earth, they claimed sovereignty (“plenitude of power”) over the world “to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.” At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title “pontifex universalis“—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who “in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor….” Is Pope Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?
  9. Papal pretensions contributed to the Great Schism in 1054, when the churches of the East formally excommunicated the Church of Rome, and the pope reacted in kind.
  10. The Avignon Papacy (1309-76) relocated the throne to France and was followed by the Western Schism (1378-1417), with three rival popes excommunicating each other and their sees. No less than the current Pope wrote, before his enthronement, “For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form–the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 196).
  11. Medieval debates erupted over whether Scripture, popes or councils had the final say. Great theologians like Duns Scotus and Pierre D’Ailly favored sola scriptura. Papalists argued that councils had often erred and contradicted themselves, so you have to have a single voice to arbitrate the infallible truth. Conciliarists had no trouble pointing out historical examples of popes contradicting each other, leading various schisms, and not even troubling to keep their unbelief and reckless immorality private. Only at the Council of Trent was the papalist party officially affirmed in this dispute.
  12. Papal claims were only strengthened in reaction to the Reformation, all the way to the promulgation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. At that Council, Pope Pius IX could even respond to modern challenges to his authority by declaring, “I am tradition.”
  13. Though inspired by God, Scripture cannot be sufficient. It is a dark, obscure, and mysterious book (rendered more so by Rome’s allegorizing exegesis). An infallible canon needs an infallible interpreter. This has been Rome’s argument. The insufficiency of Scripture rests on its lack of clarity. True it is that the Bible is a collection of texts spread across many centuries, brimming with a variety of histories, poetry, doctrines, apocalyptic, and laws. However, wherever it has been translated in the vernacular and disseminated widely, barely literate people have been able to understand its central message. Contrast this with the libraries full of decreetals and encyclicals, councilor decisions and counter-decisions, bulls and promulgations. Any student of church history recognizes that in this case the teacher is often far more obscure than the text. It’s no wonder that Rome defines faith as fides implicita: taking the church’s word for it. For Rome, faith is not trust in Jesus Christ according to the gospel, but yielding assent and obedience unreservedly simply to everything the church teaches as necessary to salvation. There are many hazards associated with embracing an infallible text without an infallible interpreter. However, the alternative is not greater certainty and clarity about the subject matter, but a sacrifice of the intellect and an abandonment of one’s personal responsibility for one’s commitments to the decisions and acts of others.
  14. Those of us who remain Reformed must examine the Scriptures and the relevant arguments before concluding that Rome’s claims are not justified and its teaching is at variance with crucial biblical doctrines. A Protestant friend in the midst of being swayed by Rome’s arguments exclaims, “That’s exactly why I can’t be a Protestant anymore. Without an infallible magisterium everyone believes whatever he chooses.” At this point, it’s important to distinguish between a radical individualism (believing whatever one chooses) and a personal commitment in view of one’s ultimate authority. My friend may be under the illusion that his or her decision is different from that, but it’s not. In the very act of making the decision to transfer ultimate authority from Scripture to the magisterium, he or she is weighing various biblical passages and theological arguments. The goal (shifting the burden of responsibility from oneself to the church) is contradicted by the method. At this point, one cannot simply surrender to a Reformed church or a Roman church; they must make a decision after careful personal study. We’re both in the same shoes.
  15. Most crucially, Rome’s ambitious claims are tested by its faithfulness to the gospel. If an apostle could pronounce his anathema on anyone—including himself or an angel from heaven—who taught a gospel different from the one he brought to them (Gal 1:8-9), then surely any minister or church body after the apostles is under that threat. First, Paul was not assuming that the true church is beyond the possibility of error. Second, he placed himself under the authority of that Word. Just read the condemnations from the Council of Trent below. Do they square with the clear and obvious teaching of Scripture? If they do not, then the choice to be made is between the infallible writings of the apostles and those after the apostles and since who claim to be the church’s infallible teachers.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, the frustration with the state of contemporary Protestantism is understandable. I feel it every day. Yet those who imagine that they will escape the struggle between the “already” and the “not yet,” the certainty of a promise and the certainty of possession, the infallibility of God’s Word and the fallibility of its appointed teachers, are bound to be disappointed wherever they land. As Calvin counseled on the matter, Scripture alone is sufficient; “better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.”

Page 31 of 98« First...1020...2930313233...405060...Last »